In this report we highlighted the conceptual, policy and practical search for meaningful public engagement with science. We outlined the historical developments, opportunities and challenges faced by policymakers, scientists and the engaged public. From our analysis we concluded that science becomes more democratic if it is accessible and inclusive to societal actors, and if citizens are given a say in their own role. In addition, we concluded that public engagement is meaningful when the goal of this engagement (the why) aligns well with who is involved, where, when and how.
In this final section, we connect these conclusions to the policy debate on open science. Based on our findings, we set out practical steps that can help policymakers and researchers to make initiatives in which they engage public groups more meaningful. This review ends with an appeal to the scientific community to take these recommendations to heart.
Public engagement in open science
Anyone who wants to involve public groups in research, or who wants to become involved in research, will find themselves in a world where (talking about) open science predominates. Research proposals must comply with open access and FAIR data guidelines, knowledge institutions have appointed open science officers to disseminate the ideas and researchers can attend workshops to organise their research in accordance with open science principles.
The ambitions for open science are grand. Open science promises to transform science for the benefit of society. This will allow science to become more deeply embedded in our society, help to solve societal challenges and make the research process more efficient and effective. Thus, using fewer resources, research will answer the right societal questions.
In the previous sections, we have seen that this idea of open science and the associated policy framework did not appear out of thin air. Both build on a trend in the interaction between science and society that has been going on for a long time. This trend has so far been towards involving public groups at an increasingly early stage, in an increasingly equal manner. It has given rise to Responsible Research and Innovation. These democratising ambitions are also reflected in the work of UNESCO and the United Nations that articulates the right to science (United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2020).
However, the current interpretation of open science gives rise to a risk that the progress made in the democratisation of science will be overshadowed by a one-sided emphasis on open access and open data. The concept of public engagement is also in danger of being narrowed down to citizen science, which is usually associated with citizens collecting data. As a result, the dialogue between science and the public could lapse back into a pattern of unequal roles.
Five steps towards meaningful public engagement
Public engagement should be given the consideration it deserves as an integral part of the pursuit of open science. This review calls for this consideration. In order to make this consideration concrete, we have translated our findings below into five practical steps to give shape to meaningful public engagement with research. We call not so much for more, but for better, public engagement: engagement that benefits both science and society.
We have seen that organising meaningful public engagement can be a challenge for all parties, including researchers, policymakers at knowledge institutions, research funders, citizens, interest groups, users, patients and professionals. The key to meaningful public engagement with research therefore lies in both the scientific and the social domain.
1. Make research accessible and inclusive for public groups
In order to increase the social significance of research, it is important to make research as accessible as possible. The first step is to remove barriers. These barriers include the use of research jargon and academic language. Translating research findings into usable guidance and tools for use in practice can improve the accessibility of the research process.
The more accessible the research is to the public, the greater the diversity of the participants. More diversity can enhance both the quality and the legitimacy of research. Research benefits when people with widely differing perspectives and insights have a say in decisions. In medical research, for example, it makes a difference to a person's input whether they have a chronic condition or have already recovered, or whether they are medically literate or not. When a wider range of groups is involved in research, this promotes scientific literacy and strengthens the position of science in society.
2. Coordinate diversity of participation and raise awareness of added value
Increasing the diversity of participants in scientific research is also related to the way a social domain is organised. Ideally, many different parties should be represented when research questions are being formulated – not just the "usual suspects". In educational research, for example, it would be good if not only enthusiastic teachers and school leaders were given a voice, but also educational professionals who are less at the forefront. Moreover, parents and pupils are seldom involved in educational research. Both scientists and societal actors have a responsibility to maximise the diversity of the public groups involved.
In our case studies we have seen that public engagement can make research substantively better and/or more socially relevant. Public groups contribute additional forms of expertise, such as practical and experiential knowledge. This can lead to different research questions, new options for data collection, empirical research in practical situations and a better translation of research results into practice. Public groups can therefore play different roles in research. For example, nature lovers are mainly involved in data collection. In psychiatry, patients contribute experiential knowledge.
Civil-society organisations, such as nature conservation organisations, trade unions and patient associations, can continue to develop and highlight these roles in research. In this way they can increase the added value of public engagement and strengthen the support for it. If public groups see their input clearly reflected in the final result, this will encourage them to (continue to) contribute.
3. Make it attractive for researchers to engage public groups
One way of encouraging public engagement with research is to make it attractive for researchers to go public. Research shows that the way researchers are currently recognised and rewarded prevents them from interacting more closely with societal actors (Felt, 2017). Meaningful public engagement must therefore take its place in the academic system of recognition and reward. To achieve this, the VSNU, NFU, KNAW, NWO and ZonMw took the first step in 2019.¹ It is now up to the knowledge institutions to translate the stated ambitions into specific (policy) measures.
It is also important to develop appropriate quality standards for research involving public groups (see Box 8 in the pdf). This enhances the societal impact of this type of research, which can motivate researchers to involve public groups in their work.
4. Make expectations explicit, reflect on and evaluate public engagement
Engaging public groups with research involves assumptions about how an activity will lead to results or outcomes. Sometimes these assumptions remain implicit. However, it is important to make these explicit, to base them on existing knowledge where possible, to reflect on them and to evaluate the result.
Assumptions are often made when the why, who, where, how and when of public engagement are being discussed (see Section 5). For example, in water quality research, it is often assumed that a higher level of water awareness is created when citizens take part in research (see Box 7). This is not always tested. The learning processes citizens go through as a result of their participation in research projects are still mostly unknown (Bonney et al., 2015; Ballard et al., 2017).
In addition to making assumptions explicit and substantiating them, it is also useful to reflect on engagement. The engagement process can be evaluated through surveys of participants, through focus groups and interviews or by making self-reflection part of the research process. There are several options for having multiple stakeholders collectively reflect on a research process (Metze et al., 2017). This makes it possible to make timely adjustments. The insights from the reflection can also help bring about effective forms of public engagement in future.
When evaluating a project, the direct output is important, as much as its societal impact. For the time being, public engagement initiatives focus mainly on efforts and activities whereas a picture of the wider impact seldom emerges (Mejlgaard et al., 2019). This wider impact is not properly evaluated. In educational research, for example, quality differences between schools may increase because some participate in academic collaborative centres while others do not. This unintended side effect should be part of the evaluation of the wider impact of public engagement.
5. Give citizens a say
To achieve a science that is accessible to everyone, it is important that people have a say in what science investigates and how it does that. In general, the earlier the parties are involved in a research process, the better able they are to contribute. In this way, in consultation with researchers, public groups can have a say in the goal of the research, its execution and their own role in it. They can choose to be involved in formulating the research question or only contribute as a volunteer data collector. If those involved have a certain amount of influence on the research and their role in it, this will increase support for the research.
¹ These parties signed the position paper Ruimte voor ieders talent - Naar een nieuwe balans in het erkennen en waarderen van wetenschappers [Room for everyone’s talent: towards a new balance in the recognition and reward of academics], which also includes impact as a key variable.