The public should be made a key partner in the research process! This is the message from VA in response to a Green paper published by the European Commission asking for input on the future of research and innovation within Europe.
Failing to take into account the views and concerns of Civil Society threatens the success of the European Research Area as a whole. Solutions offered by new technologies will not be implemented without the approval of society. However, according to VA, there is a clear danger that Science and Society issues will be seen as peripheral and therefore optional in the drive for simplification and efficiency.
VA has also submitted this paper to the Swedish Ministry for Education for consideration in national as well as international science policy decisions.
Practical examples of areas where public opinion can influence the implementation of new technologies include alternative energy sources such as biofuels and wind farms, GM crops, and stem cell research.
The latest Science and Technology Eurobarometer shows that the majority of Europeans are interested in science and technology. 88 per cent are interested in environmental problems, 82 per cent in new medical discoveries and 79 per cent in science and technology developments. However interest does not mean support. A further conclusion from the barometer is that “Europeans tend not to trust scientists who depend on money from industry”. This is of particular concern as the next European funding framework looks increasingly towards collaborations between business and research.
The fundamental problem is how to engage civil society in the research processes. VA believes this can only be achieved by making civil society a key partner in the research processes, in terms of decision-making, evaluation, monitoring and forward-looks.
VA puts forward five proposals to the Commission for the effective engagement of Science with Society:
- An overarching division of DG Research and Innovation dedicated to Science and Society. This division would look at how best to fully involve society in the research process, to understand the needs and concerns of society and to experiment with new forms of dialogue between researchers, innovators, policy makers and civil society.
- A shift in scientific culture towards one where society is an important and active partner in the research process. The knowledge triangle is not sufficient – it should be a knowledge pyramid with society at the fourth apex.
- Formal recognition of researchers, research faculties and universities for work in engaging with society. This aspect of the research process must be embedded within research funding and evaluation processes.
- Up-stream dialogue with civil society on potentially controversial research projects. It is not sufficient to inform the public of decisions that have already been taken. Society must be a full partner in the dialogue from the first stages of the process.
- Prioritising dialogue and two-way communication in public engagement activities. Civil society must have its voice heard. Scientists also need to learn from the public in order to ensure their research findings can be used to their fullest potential.
The Green paper consultation process invites broad opinions from across European society. VA is calling on the Commission to extend the same logic to the research process itself.