4. Prague (03/2013)
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.
The opening presentation from Prof. Carsten Stahl revealed that to date CONSIDER had carried out two rounds of surveys with FP7 project coordinator and that the project has received around 3,000 responses. Among this large number of responses, around 20% claimed to have had experienced CSO involvement in their projects. However, as many as 6% were unsure as to whether CSOs had been involved in their projects, which raises certain questions, namely, are researchers aware of what constitutes a CSO and, if not, are these initial figures a true reflection of the extent of CSO involvement in European research projects?
Prof. Carsten Stahl (De Montfort University) in the opening presentation
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.
Simon Pfersdorf, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
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 Edgaras Leichteris, Knowledge Economy Forum (Lithuania)
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.
Dr Christopher Coenen, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Feedback and discussion
The presentations were followed by lively discussion including questions from the audience. The questions focused around certain points, especially the difficulties encountered when attempting to define a CSO and in which fields CSO involvement can be most beneficial. Regarding the confusion over what constitutes a CSO, some members of the audience were unsure as to whether or not organisations that they work with are considered a CSO. While a broader definition of ‘civil society organisation’ is widely accepted, some participants suggested that this more open-minded approach could detract from the meaningfulness of the findings of the CONSIDER project.
Dr. Stefan Boeschen, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
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 issue regarding the usefulness of CSO collaboration within specific fields was also raised by the workshop participants. Many audience members agreed, for example, that CSOs do not have a relevant contribution to make to fields such as synthetic biology. A further point was that, when looking beyond the scientific and technological communities, it is important that the position of end-users is considered. In some cases this might be an opportunity for CSOs to get involved; in others, public sector organisations or profit-making organisations might make better partners.
Interesting points were also raised on the subject of deterrents to CSO participation in research from a CSO point of view. The limited capacity of CSOs was amongst the reasons cited for the restricted involvement of these organisations in research as well as the CSOs’ fear that involvement in research projects could influence their neutrality.
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.