"Participatory research in Europe: Are Civil
Society Organisations doing research?"
In December 2013, CONSIDER gathered representatives from civil society, research, media and policy in a creative environment to discuss their views on the participation of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in research.
To empower CSOs and ensure they can express themselves without any kind of external framing by researchers, CONSIDER organised an event in the form of an Open Forum as it provides participants with the opportunity to address the issues that are most important to them. An Open Forum has no predetermined agenda. On the morning of the event, participants themselves outline the topics that they are most passionate about and invite others to work with them in discussion.
The basic principles that guide an Open Forum are: whoever comes is the right person; whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; whenever it starts is the right time; and when it is over, it is over. Essentially, an Open Forum requires a positive approach and you must concentrate on what you have available to you, in terms of people, resources and time, and not worry about what might have been. Furthermore, it is a creative environment that cannot be restrained by strict schedules and timings.
Following an open process with all participants, six topics were suggested for discussion and five were studied together over the course of the day. The first two topics proposed were:
1. Recognition of researchers in participatory research projects
2. Déformatage du chercheur : Le chercheur est citoyen / Deconstructing researchers: Researchers are citizens
As both topics relate to the identity of researchers, they were merged into one workshop. Participants agreed that the current social and environmental problems have forced researchers and civil society together, however much work is still needed for this relationship to be effective. Several key issues were identified in the profile of researchers that hinder participatory research projects. Firstly, the majority of researchers cannot see past their own environment and understand the perspective of citizens. This lack of connection between the two communities hinders any constructive communication.
There are also misleading motivations for becoming involved in participatory research. Researchers might seek CSO participation because it is compulsory in a call, whilst CSOs may be willing to contribute to research projects because there are financial benefits. The CSOs that normally work with the scientific community often have a background in science. They do not find themselves involved in these projects by coincidence. Yet this means that there is a narrower scope and understanding for researchers about how civil society operates. The general consensus was that the biggest hindrance to relationships between civil society and the scientific community was mutual understanding.
Participants discussed the issues at length and proposed a number of solutions to increase understanding between researchers and civil society. When civil society and science do interact, citizens can often feel like research objects instead of equals. Civil society has to be involved in all stages of a research project so that they feel like a valued partner. The language that researchers use also alienates civil society. Media can help to overcome this issue and whilst work is being done to adapt the language and popularise terminology, it will take time.
The group concluded that it is not the case that you are defined either as a researcher or a citizen. It is a spectrum and people fall somewhere in between these two worlds. Communication is a crucial barrier to civil society involvement in research, in terms of both establishing a connection and then ensuring understanding. Structures are being created but we have not achieved our final goal to unite researchers and civil society. Too many people are still too far from the movement and haven’t realised the necessity to work with civil society.
3. Science Shops: Connecting civil society with researchers to find solutionsScience Shops are ‘mediation centres’ between society (local communities) and research structures. There are two different types of Science Shops: university-based Science Shops and self-funded (or non-university based) Science Shops. The premise is to support civil society resolve problems with research. Science Shops work in an inter-disciplinary environment, whereby researchers come together to ‘translate’ or transform’ a community problem into a research question. They aim to convert the research question (or series of questions) into a public, common language, answer.
As Science Shops are funded by public money, the results are also public with no hidden agenda. They also have a strong networking capability with members of the community, CSOs, researchers, and activists. Horizon 2020 is an excellent opportunity to start new society-related activities and research, since 0.5% of its budget will be dedicated to public engagement.
By prioritising bottom-up schemes with a focus on public engagement, Science Shops overcome the challenge of balancing the management of limited resources with the need to get public recognition. Furthermore, they work to attract students, as a new way for learning and empowerment. As such, they are a key tool in the development of relations between civil society and the scientific community.
4. How can we find new topics and new partners for participatory research?To find new partners, you must have meaningful exchanges. It is very important that you know your partner as you will rely on them to deliver work. You must understand how they work, where their strengths lie and which areas they will need support in. To facilitate this process, it was suggested to ask for references from previous partners, where appropriate. The use of ICT tools as a means of creating exchanges was also proposed, with a focus on both webinars and Google Groups as effective environments for idea creation.
ICT tools can also facilitate networking. To turn solutions from local to global, we must share knowledge by networking. You need to network in order to increase your reach and a strong example of this is the Living Knowledge conference. With this event, you set a topic, start a debate and develop research questions from the discussion.
It was argued that though networking is a crucial process, it is not organic and therefore must be sustained. In search of a solution for self-sustaining networks, the discussion returned to Science Shops (as discussed in a previous workshop) as a means of access to new topics and partners. As Science Shops bring together those with questions and those with answers, they become self- sustaining networks.
Participants agreed that a database or platform of CSOs and research projects, research topics, or competencies-knowledge could also become a self-sustaining platform. We rely on what we know, working on the same topics with the same partners and this inevitably restricts our findings. A national or international platform would facilitate new partnerships and allow for the presentation and discussion of new topics.
5. The role of civil society in RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation)
The discussion began with the suggestion that RRI means science with and for society. If RRI strives for societal development, then CSOs must be given a voice. We cannot prioritise the voice of researchers as all groups should be seen as equal. RRI also implies new thinking; state and corporations have failed to find solutions to social problems and as such, we should look to develop answers from within society.
However, the group were not united in agreement that RRI signified progress. Some participants argued that RRI is just a new term for an old idea that has never worked. As in the first workshop, the point was raised that in order to realise responsible research, CSOs have to be involved from the very beginning of the process. Some also argued that RRI was merely a political game. Nonetheless, it should not be dismissed as it may provide opportunities for collaborative projects. CSOs are often invited to partner on a project in order for researchers to satisfy criteria or receive funding. Yet it was remarked that as the project develops, researchers come to understand the value of CSOs and look to continue the partnership in the future.
Returning to the idea of definitions and identities from the first workshop, civil society is not of value only for social innovation. We must not divide individuals into categories. In science, progress is the main goal so bringing people with new views together is the key to realising this.
The participants discussed the risks involved in RRI, concluding that all project members must take this into account before commencing. However, some suggested that CSOs are more in favour of taking risks which means that they contribute to both responsible and innovative research. Their involvement brings a new perspective to the project and is the biggest added value of CSO participation in research.
The group concluded that RRI tool kits would facilitate this new movement. If every stakeholder gave their definition of RRI, it would allow for active contributions and the development of training. However, it was noted that we need to look for further processes that allow for civil society and researchers to start acting together.
6. Conventions de citoyens: Rassembler les intervenants / Citizen conferences: Bringing stakeholders together
There were less participants in attendance for the final session and it was decided that, based on the expertise present, efforts would be best spent concentrating on the topics of new partners and RRI. As a result, citizen conferences were not debated at the Open Forum.