Social engagement in Research and Innovation

The final conference of the EU project PROSO “Promoting Social Engagement in Research and Innovation“ took place in Brussels on February 19, 2018. Selamawit Molla Fossum from iResponse attended the conference and sums up key points.

The PROSO project is funded by EU horizon 2020 program to promote the engagement of citizens and third sector organizations, like Non-governmental Organisations and Civil Society Organisations, in research and innovation, in broader terms referred to as societal actors.

I present a summary of a few key points I took away from their final conference in Brussels on February 19, 2018.

Understanding systemic barriers and empowering societal actors

PROSO aimed at implementing Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and understanding systemic barriers related to insufficient involvement of societal actors. 

It was a full day conference with a theme “empowering societal actors through responsible research and innovation”. The conference brought together a broad range of participants including researchers, RRI practitioners, funding organizations, media people and PROSO project participants.

I attended the conference on behalf of our iResponse project as a result of invitation from PROSO project. As part of the RRI element of iResponse, we wanted to learn from the PROSO case studies on practical approaches of societal engagement in RRI.

Citizen science, policy and impact

After a brief introduction by the moderator Katrine Sichel, the conference was officially opened by Ana Arana Antelo, head of unit of science & society, citizens and gender, European commission. Ana expressed the commission’s commitment towards RRI with a special focus on citizen science. As a policy maker, she encouraged the conference participants to bring the result of the discussion to policy.

The first keynote speaker was Riitta Maijala from the Academy of Finland, the Finnish Research Council. Drawing examples from a veterinary project, she emphasized impact for researchers and impact for participants as the two factors that influence societal engagement. 

To address these factors, the Finnish Research Council has dedicated funding for persons who facilitate communication and engagement, as it requires special skill that may not exist within the current researcher community.

She concluded by mentioning a few pieces of advice regarding how to increase interest in societal engagement from a funding agency viewpoint. Those are: 

  • Acknowledging and building on existing models
  • Sharing best practices
  • Developing infrastructure, concepts and focusing on training
  • Keeping balance between participation and enhancing research merit
  • Acknowledging diversity
  • Enhancing trust from the research community and societal actors

Societal engagement in PROSO

The second keynote speaker was Marion Dreyer from PROSO project. She summarized the social engagement achievements of PROSO. She presented the challenges they faced and put forward recommendations from their two years’ experience on societal engagement in 3 domain areas; Nano technology, food and health, and bio economy.

At the start of her talk, Marion acknowledged that PROSO did not start from scratch, but based upon already exiting tools such as RRI Tools, PE2020 and ENGAGE 2020

The challenges related to societal engagement observed during the project includes:

  • Citizens skepticism towards engaging in Research and Innovation
  • Difficulty of recruitment of citizens 

As a solution, she noted the need for dedicated policy and the change of structures in funding organizations.

Key barriers to public engagement:

Marion continued her presentation by listing the 6 key barriers to engagement that PROSO found out from its practical citizen and third sector engagement work. These barriers are:

  1.  Lack of relevance that matches one’s own interest 
  2.  Lack of impact
  3.  Lack of trust and mutual understanding
  4.  Lack of ways for building knowledge and skills
  5.  Lack of time and financial resources
  6.  Lack of legitimacy: there is a question from citizens if they are a legitimate participant in research as it is a job of researchers

Some of her points were consistent with Riitta’s advices.


The rest of Marion’s presentation revolved around the central theme of empowerment.  She put forward empowerment as an underdeveloped concept in RRI. 

At the end of the keynote speech, participants discussed the need for communication expertise like knowledge brokers or boundary spanners to complement the current lack of skill in properly translating scientific results to lay people.

The issue of empowerment was discussed further in the 1st panel discussion, where panelists highlighted concerns regarding right size of participants, reaching different social groups, the need for massive funding to reach all social groups and if societal engagement should be professionalized or not.

Ellen-Marie Forsberg from Oslo Metropolitan University cautioned that empowering citizens and third sector could imply disempowering scientists. Regarding professionalizing engagement, panelists expressed their fear that it may hinder scientists’ engagement in the dialogue.  

The panelists also discussed if compensation should be used to encourage people to take part in research and innovation. At the end, the moderator asked if there is any practical case study, which worked in inclusion of marginalized social groups. The wellNow initiative, a group of dietitians and others working with food and health to build a fairer, safer world, was seen as an example and it was presented after the panel discussion. Two projects in Norway, the Assisting Living project as well as a project on urban design, were mentioned as other additional examples as they have focus on the elderly and immigrant groups.

Experiences from case studies

Followed the panel discussion, two case studies were presented. In the first case study, Lucy aphramor presented the wellNow initiative, where she looked at empowerment from a liberation psychology point of view. The second case study came from IVAM Nanocap project, 'Nanotechnology Capacity Building NGOs'. Pieter van den Broekhuizen talked about how the project dealt with balancing pros and cons of nano technologies.

Pieter advised R & I projects to not always invite citizens to project activities but to proactively go to citizens and be part of their natural system. His advice was well supported by the round Robin session introduction of the carbon literacy project in the UK, where peer learning is viewed as basic mechanism of teaching carbon emission reduction methods to the public.

Dave Coleman from the carbon literacy project gave interesting means of reaching the public like collaborating with schools and universities directly and using well-known TV series. 

In the round robin session additional brief presentations were given from the EU trade union institute, research council of UK, EU science journalist associations and Ecover. Tom Domen, from Ecover, shared an interesting story of how Ecover’s attempt to use algal oil to produce palm oil free laundry was cut short by activists.

Engagement and the role of scientists and citizens

The last part of the conference was allocated to a 2nd Panel discussion. During this session the panelists discussed the need for a middle way - both bottom-up and top down - engagement process. They also discussed how to deal with the feeling of pressure in engagement by the public. 

To increase the interaction between EU and other actors, EU noted the soon to be launched science media lab hub.

The conference highlighted a future focus on citizen science initiatives as a way of empowering societal actors and addressing the science education pillar of RRI.

About the author: Selamawit Molla Fossum is postdoc in the iResponse project working at the Department of Informatics at University of Oslo.