DRIFT OR TRANSITION
Science is changing rapidly.
Global social challenges demand fast solutions based on a science able to integrate different disciplines and research communities as well as to dialogue with government, industry, and civil society. Thus the focus is increasingly put on an interdisciplinary applied research, which however needs to be backed by and interact with long-term highly-specialised fundamental research programmes.
Science is also asked to be more transparent and accountable, more communicative and people-friendly, more ethically oriented and socially committed. The authority and unity of science are weakening and people’s trust in science is decreasing, while their expectations towards the capacity of science to have large social and economic impacts quite paradoxically increase.
All in all, science is asked to do more, faster and better, often with less (less resources, less time, less institutional support). This is leading to higher competition levels among research institutions and researchers in order to publish, access funds, attract talents and raise reputation.
Research institutions are changing in their culture, procedures, decision processes and organisational structures. In many cases, changes are not planned or oriented through policies and measures, but simply borne by researchers and managers. Many factors make it difficult for research institutions to manage them, including internal resistances, lack of awareness about what is really at stake, insufficient skills and knowledge, shortage of investments and resources, or absence of an enabling national policy environment.
The question is therefore whether these changes will finally result in a drift (i.e., a largely ungoverned and uncoordinated set of processes) or in a transition (i.e., a shift from a state to another managed and driven, as far as possible, through specific measures, policies and cultural inputs).
PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT AS A GENERAL APPROACH TO SCIENCE GOVERNANCE
Public engagement (PE) is a key component for research institutions to face these changes. Beyond specific definitions, PE can be understood as a general approach specifically aimed at getting different players, cultures, interests and knowledge to interact for identifying and attaining common objectives in terms of governance of research institutions and development of the research process.
It is not the only possible approach, nor can it be applied alone. Certainly it is one of the most relevant and consolidated.
In the last two decades at least, many PE tools and techniques have been created and tested. Some of them are being used in research institutions and are becoming embedded in their strategies. A community of experts in PE tools and policies is growing, in Europe as elsewhere, as a part of a larger movement promoting public engagement as a key axis for a new governance of social and economic processes in contemporary societies.
Yet, despite that, the actual development, diffusion and impact of public engagement with science remains limited.
Its development is limited, since in many cases PE is still merely used as a little more sophisticated form of science communication and not as a permanent component of science governance. Its actual potentials are therefore still to be explored.
Its diffusion is also limited, since – apart from a few countries – in the great majority of European member states PE is only occasionally applied by research organisations, and national strategies in this field are still weak or missing altogether.
Finally, its impact is limited, since on average PE practices are not organically connected to the research organisation’s policy cycle and research processes.
A leap forward in promoting the diffusion and strengthening the role of public engagement is therefore necessary.
THE OBJECTIVES OF THE TOOLKIT
This toolkit is precisely an attempt to give a contribution for this leap forward to occur. It is indeed part of a broader policy action promoted by the European Commission to sustain the development and diffusion of PE all over Europe as an essential approach for the governance of science.
In particular, the Toolkit is intended to pursue two specific objectives.
The first objective is that of providing the readers with an easy, rapid and guided access to the huge amount of practical and theoretical knowledge and resources developed in the last two decades on public engagement with science, as well as on other relevant stocks of knowledge.
The second objective is that of integrating in a single frame questions and issues pertaining to public engagement which are usually dealt with separately, namely:
- How to interpret the strategic framework in which public engagement with science is presently placed
- How to plan and implement PE initiatives
- How to embed PE in research organisations triggering institutional change processes
- How research organisations may contribute to embed PE in society, thus favouring the development of a scientific citizenship.
In dealing with these issues, an effort was made to show when using PE is appropriate and when it is not. Actually, PE cannot be conceived as a fit-for-all solution to the lack of social support to science. In many cases, using PE when it is not necessary can be even risky since it may trigger unexpected, unintended and uncontrolled dynamics. Hence the need to make an in-depth analysis of the problems to cope with and the objectives to realistically pursue before starting any PE initiative.
WHO IS THE TOOLKIT FOR
Evidently, the Toolkit can be useful for all those interested in promoting PE policies, measures and initiatives.
However, the analysis made under PE2020 suggests how the main factor presently limiting the role and diffusion of public engagement is the still limited involvement of European universities and research institutions in public engagement.
The vast majority of them, for example, did not establish specific strategies for embedding PE practices in the ordinary organisational and research procedures, nor played a supportive role for developing PE-based policies at local or national levels. In many PE initiatives, research organisations are involved but infrequently with the role of initiators. As for scientists, many of them are actively concerned with PE, but they often act on a voluntary basis. In general, researchers’ involvement with public engagement is hindered by different factors, such as the lack of recognition of PE activities in terms of scientific rewards and career advancement, the limited support usually provided by their own institution, or the shortage of training opportunities related to PE.
This is the reason why this Toolkit is primarily addressed to universities and research organisations, in order to help them:
- Plan and implement PE initiatives
- Embed PE in their current strategies and practices
- sustain the establishment of PE policies on science and innovation at local and national level.
Within universities and research organisation, the Toolkit is mainly directed at:
- Top and middle managers (including, e.g., rectors, vice rectors, members of the different Boards, research/teaching Committees or the Academic Senate, etc.)
- Heads of key offices or units (Communication Department, Human Resources Department, University Liaison Office, etc.)
- Heads of Departments or Research Units
- Individual researchers.