Public involvement in research has been established as a cornerstone of the responsible research and innovation agenda that pervades all European research funded by Horizon 2020. On 28 January 2015, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the CONSIDER project (Civil Society Organisations in Designing Research Governance) jointly hosted the conference "Civil Society in Research and Innovation" in Brussels.
Public involvement in research calls for including a cross-section of stakeholders such as researchers, policymakers and civil society organisations. Including civil society representation provides a number of benefits, notably proximity to society's needs, deeper insights into research-related issues, greater legitimacy and the better dissemination of results. These are the grounds for the call to integrate science and society. However, despite decades of research on the theory and practice of public involvement in science, there is limited understanding of the role that civil society organisations (CSOs) play in research.
Bringing together around 200 representatives from across Europe and beyond, the event aimed to stimulate debate between representatives of the main stakeholder groups involved in integrating civil society into research. Policymakers, civil society representatives and academic researchers discussed the recent work carried out by the EESC and the CONSIDER project, and looked at both current practices and potential future directions.
The CONSIDER project (www.consider-project.eu) focussed on issues related to integrating CSOs into collaborative research projects, especially EU-funded multi-stakeholder projects (such as FP7 and Horizon 2020). The project centred on current collaborative practices, observing different research teams in real time.
Evidence from the CONSIDER project shows that:
- Only 27% of collaborative EU research projects involve Civil Society Organisations
- CSO involvement works best in European projects when CSOs play a central role within the project, acting as a link between the research project on one hand and a part of society on the other
- CONSIDER has carried out conceptually sound and empirically rich research and has established a model for CSO participation in research.
"Including Civil Society Organisations (CSO) in research can offer many benefits, including higher acceptance of research outcomes and better quality of research findings. At present, CSO participations remain limited".
CSO participation is not the "one best way" to do research; it is useful in some settings but not in others. In fact, not all research projects will benefit from civil society involvement, and indeed it may sometimes prove counter-productive. For it to work, there must be an identifiable need for links with society at large.