On March 14th 2013 the CONSIDER project held a workshop in Prague, as part of the “Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment” (PACITA) conference. The session brought together researchers and civil society organisations (CSOs) to stimulate a critical discussion about the conditions, pitfalls and limits of CSO participation in research.
The aim of this workshop, the fourth in a series of ten, was to share the consortium’s initial findings and to discuss the present research in front of an audience with experience and interest in research with CSO engagement.
The workshop was attended by 30 participants and was opened by CONSIDER’S coordinator, Professor Bernd Carsten Stahl, after which presentations were given by representatives both from the scientific research field and civil society organisations. The meeting concluded with a question and answer session.
Following this, a second member of the CONSIDER consortium, Simon Pfersdorf, presented one of the pilot case studies carried out by the project and elaborating on the selection criteria for future case studies.
The third presenter, Dr Edgaras Leichteris of the Knowledge Economy Forum (Lithuania), spoke about his experience with research projects as a CSO representative and about the benefits that CSOs can bring to the research field. One interesting point was his reflection on the relationships that can develop: he suggested that funding is often a key factor in drawing CSOs into participation with projects, and that researchers may also see CSOs as a means towards funding opportunities. However, under the right circumstances, a positive relationship can often develop between partners, which is mutually beneficial in the long-term and would can lead to repeated cooperation in the future. A further important point from Dr Leichteris’s presentation is that NGOs can be the ‘translators’ between the scientific community and wider society and government.
Dr Christopher Coenen of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, on the other hand, provided the perspective of a researcher, outlining both positive and negative implications of collaboration with CSOs. It is important to note, he said, that CSOs have their own agenda and therefore a vested interest in the outcome of the research. Many audience members later agreed with this view as they consider CSOs as interest-driven by their very nature. However, a benefit of working with CSOs, he continued, is that such organisations can act as a bridge between the research community and wider society; they can provide valuable insights regarding applications and methodology, and often also a reality-check. The lack of CSO involvement in research would mean that there would be less or no critical reflection in projects.
In addition, participants also pointed out that a distinction is often only made between CSOs and research institutes (i.e. non-governmental vs government affiliated), which does not acknowledge the full breadth of organisations currently involved in research.
Other audience members remained unconvinced of the benefits of involving a CSO. For example, one member said he did not agree with working with a CSO ‘for the sake of it’, even though the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is encouraging and looking for synergies between different stakeholders in project proposals. This suggests that some project coordinators might approach CSOs only because of the monetary advantages of this course; for instance some grants are available only to projects where one partner is a CSO. What researchers may not initially realise, however, is that the partnership may bring long-term benefits to both parties; this comes back to Dr Leichteris’s idea about positive, long-term relationships.
The workshop provided recommendations for the CONSIDER project and highlighted a number of key questions that would need to be taken into account by the consortium during the course of the project. These included the definition of CSOs and how organisations define themselves, as well as the project’s definition of research governance (participants questioned whether the focus is on research governance or rather the idea of collaboration between CSOs and researchers). The event also reaffirmed some of the internal conclusions of the CONSIDER consortium, such as the importance of the funding conditions and field of research.