The Risk-Monger

This is the second of my three wishes for the planning process for the Eighth Framework Programme (FP8) and it is addresses some of the challenges that RTD have been trying to address in FP6 and FP7. My wish is to implement a structural incentive for researchers to work more closely with civil society organisations.

Stakeholder engagement has been the standard policy approach post White Paper on Governance, and the Commission has institutionalised the process with a fair degree of success, engaging with governments, industry, civil society and the academe. Where there has been little success until now is in developing better engagement between civil society and the scientific community (science here referring to pure sciences and not social scientists who insist that their methodologies allow them to wear white coats).

Why is it important to EU policymakers that scientists and NGO activists are friends (after all, science and religion have been at each others’ throats for centuries)? It has been seen with risk crises like GMOs and certain medical interventions that the best research in the world won’t convert into innovations society can use if civil society does not support it, create a demand for it or is afraid of the technology’s exploitation. Worse, European biotech researchers voted with their feet and moved in large numbers to the United States. With emerging research in nanotechnology and synthetic biology threatening to lead to a further public backlash and scientific brain drain, something needed to be done to engage civil society organisations (i.e., get them to behave rationally).

There have been several attempts at bringing civil society (activist NGOs, non-profits, church groups) and scientific representatives together, but they are not natural bedfellows and common ground is sparse. The FP6 Science and Society in Europe programme attempted to bridge the gap between the two communities, promoting science communication, public outreach and awareness programmes. This was sparked by the loss of trust in science brought on by the risk crises in the 1990s (BSE, GMOs, dioxins) where the scientific community seemed aloof from the concerns of the public and several NGO activist campaigns were seen to be effective at making their research seem frightening. The closer, funding related relationship between research and industry did not help either. Several Eurobarometer studies showed public support for research and technology investment waning at a time when the EU needed to improve its research competitiveness. It is very difficult to measure the success of the Science in Society in Europe programme – polls regularly showed that scientists still do not feel that it is their responsibility to engage with the public.

Another attempt was to create multi-stakeholder European Technology Platforms (ETPs) for the different research fields. If all stakeholders could reach a consensus on research technologies, the world would be an easier place for policy-makers. Civil society groups were courted and for a time participated, but after a short initial fanfare, the stakeholder dialogue in ETPs transformed into industry-government cooperative organisations. The NGOs largely felt that they were only involved to validate the process and their views were not widely taken into consideration. Interests diverged: NGOs wanted to be involved to effect change and were not interested in compromise; researchers wanted NGOs involved to legitimate the process and not be disruptive. Consensus, the ETP Holy Grail, remained aloof.

In 2006-07, I had the privilege of serving as rapporteur for a European Union Research Advisory Board paper on the relationship between civil society and the scientific community. The lack of success in engaging civil society with the research community motivated the Commission to look at other alternatives (some being very long term) including: educating researchers at an early stage about the important role (i.e., influence) of NGOs; creating better forums for dialogue; providing the means for civil society groups to develop research capacities; and my favourite, just give the ETP funding to civil society groups and charge them with forming a consensus (make them see how difficult it is when groups are belligerent). The year-long consultation for the paper produced some interesting debates, particularly on forms of knowledge. Most scientists feel that there is only one legitimate form of knowledge (scientific knowledge) and refused to consider other forms like folk wisdom, emotive or intuitive knowledge. Here was a crux problem in engaging with civil society groups that focused on other forms of knowledge.

One of the evolutions, which I believe evolved from the spirit of the EURAB paper, was the FP7 programme on mobilisation and mutual learning (MML). Through a series of calls for proposals, MML aims to fund civil society groups to develop a better research capacity, an improved dialogue between scientific research organisations and public interest groups, and an integration of a wider base of societal interaction in EU research initiatives. The very term “mutual learning” implies that there are different forms of knowledge which have value towards research and merit support and development. The problem with MML is that they have limited budgets and, as random, annual one-offs that fund three-year projects, there are no long-term structural innovations. Furthermore, the definition of civil society is vague and open. Science centres and museums are technically considered as civil society organisations, which easily form into consortia with large research centres, but are not at the heart of the objectives of widening the base of knowledge.

What is needed is a way to motivate NGOs and scientists to listen to each other and, hopefully, some day, cooperate together. This should be an objective of FP8. My second wish is that FP8 provide a structural mechanism to encourage long-term coordination between scientists and NGO activists. It need not be complicated or expensive … just courageous.

Positive suggestion time:

I would like FP8 to require a certain budgetary reserve (in percentage terms) in all of its calls so that each proposal develops a work package that engages with civil society partners included in the proposed consortium. If the proposal wants to do cutting edge work with nanotechnologies, for example, then it would be expected that a partner in the consortium should be a group committed to public engagement on emerging research, worker safety or environmental health risks. If research in synthetic biology catalysts for biofuels were to be funded, the consortium should have some expertise on the societal concerns surrounding biofuels (deforestation, public health, land grabs in developing countries, real overall CO2 emissions) and a work package that allows for internal and external debate. The civil society expertise is out there, but like satellites, their orbits are in parallel loops.

It may be awkward at first (like bringing pubescent teenagers from a boys’ school to a dance at a Catholic girls’ school), but I could imagine, after a few years, that the routine will be well rehearsed and the actors will start to become familiar with each other. The value extends beyond the amount funded, as all consortium proposals, funded or not, will need to engage with civil society groups. It must be integrated into the evaluation process. If scientists think public engagement and acceptance is not part of their research priorities, they are free to look for funding elsewhere. The FP programmes though tend to influence other research funding mechanisms.

The idea itself is not that radical (except perhaps that the Risk-Monger is the one making it). In FP6, when the lack of science communication was seen as a gaping hole in societal perceptions of emerging research, the FP was structured to ensure that each project commit a significant budget towards communications. Consortium that only considered this measure as a website plus conference plus a few peer reviewed papers suddenly saw their proposals losing valuable points in the evaluation process. It made them look at areas they had previously not cared about. Today science communication has matured and many experts have settled comfortably in this hybrid specialisation.

While some would consider this impractical and a waste of money, we should put this idea within a sober evaluation of the real success measures for EU funded research. While on paper, the framework billions may look like a lot of money, compared to national funding and industry or private academic investments, the amount is less impressive. Where FP funding punches above its weight is in the ability to cross-fertilise – to bring together actors from different countries and fields to exchange ideas within an emerging European research culture. You rarely get innovative ideas when everyone in the room has the same background and thinks the same way. A critical success factor I use in ex-post evaluations is whether the consortium partners continue to work together after the project has finished. If FP8 can bring together actors who would normally never share the same bed, get them to think differently and continue to work together even after the financial stimulation has expired, this would be a great success.

And scientists might just learn that there are other useful forms of knowledge.

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