In this review, we attempt to ascertain when public engagement is meaningful and how it can be organised. For this purpose, we examine the (scientific) ideas about the relationship between science and society and the European and Dutch policy developments in this respect. We also draw on three domain studies that we published previously. We present practical steps for policymakers, researchers and the public that can be taken to make public engagement with research more meaningful.
The European Commission and the Dutch government have high expectations of open science, both for science and for society. Open science, they believe, is better embedded in society and is more helpful in addressing major societal challenges. Openness would also make science faster and more efficient.
To make scientific research more open, scientists and policymakers are currently devoting considerable attention to promoting free access to scientific articles and research data. This pushes the openness of science to society into the background. Moreover, engaging the public in a meaningful way is no easy task in the real world. Although research funders are increasingly focusing on public engagement, this can lead to scientists involving "public groups" mainly for the sake of appearance (tokenism).¹ Citizens may appear to be involved, but in fact contribute little and have little influence.
In this review, we attempt to ascertain when public engagement is meaningful and how it can be organised. For this purpose, we examine the (scientific) ideas about the relationship between science and society and the European and Dutch policy developments in this respect. We also draw on three domain studies that we published previously.² We present practical steps for policymakers, researchers and the public that can be taken to make public engagement with research more meaningful.
The scientific debate about public engagement
Since the mid-twentieth century, sociologists of science have been pointing out that science is a collective search process, in which it matters who is involved. Different types of knowledge are gradually being recognised: citizens can possess experiential knowledge, which complements the formal knowledge of scientists. It is useful to involve stakeholders in research, especially when faced with uncertain facts, major interests and conflicts over values. Similar issues are at play in technology development. Who is involved makes a difference to the way new technology is embedded in society³.
We also see a shift in science communication. Whereas this used to be mainly concerned with explaining science to the general public it is now more focused on dialogue. This dialogue involves not only conveying scientific knowledge, but also sharing values, interests, power and trust.
Public engagement policy
The development of this line of thought on public engagement is reflected in European and Dutch science policy. The European policy framework Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) promotes science as a transparent, interactive process in which societal actors and researchers are receptive to each other's perspectives and needs. Attention to dialogue and participation, and to new forms of knowledge co-creation, has grown as a result of RRI. In the Netherlands, the Dutch National Research Agenda attempts to connect science and society.
Policies at both European and national level are now focusing on open science and, in particular, on more mutual collaboration and easier data sharing to achieve better, more efficient and more reliable science. This means that the relationship amongst scientists is considered more important than the relationship between science and society. Compared to RRI, the ambitions for public engagement have been watered down. Participation is often narrowed down to citizen science, i.e. citizens helping to conduct research.
Public engagement in practice
In three (separately published) case studies, we examined practical examples of public engagement in different fields: psychiatry, educational research and research into water quality. This research shows that the necessary structures and incentives that enable, promote or support public engagement are not developed well enough in the world of science. Scientists are less valued if they conduct research with public groups. In addition, the prevailing methodology and epistemology within some scientific disciplines stand in the way of public engagement.⁴
Individuals' need for engagement with research varies according to their immediate interests. For example, patients are easier to mobilise for psychiatric research than nature lovers are for water quality research. Another factor is the degree of organisation. Where interest groups such as patients' associations advocate for a place at the research table, public engagement is less fragmented. A low degree of organisation, as we found among teachers for example, can lead to engagement being limited to individual front-runners, with little effect on the field of practice as a whole.
Meaningful public engagement
Our search culminates in the proposition that public engagement is meaningful when it contributes to the democratisation of knowledge development. Democratisation means changing the (power) relationship between knowledge producers and the various groups in society in favour of the latter. This involves:
- Accessibility; how high are the barriers to influencing research and research agendas?
- Inclusion; do all groups of stakeholders and interested parties get involved?
- Participation; to what extent do external stakeholders determine the role they play and the contribution they make to public research?
There can be various reasons for public engagement: substantive (citizens contribute additional knowledge), normative (citizens have a right to be involved) and instrumental (public engagement ensures greater support and a better match with society's needs). If public engagement is to be meaningful, the reasons for it must align well with:
- who will be involved (stakeholders or interested parties);
- where it takes place;
- in which phase it takes place (agenda-setting, execution of research, or implementation of research results); and
- what form it takes (providing information, co-executing, advising, joint decisions).
Five steps to meaningful public engagement
Based on the current interpretation of open science, progress towards the democratisation of science is overshadowed by a one-sided emphasis on open access and open data. And yet, organising meaningful public engagement is a challenge for everyone: researchers and policymakers at knowledge institutions and research funders, citizens, interest groups, patients and professionals. That is why we have drawn up five steps towards meaningful public engagement.
1. Make research accessible and inclusive for diverse public groups
In order to maximise the social impact of research, it is important to make research as accessible as possible. This can be done by minimising the use of research jargon and academic language and, as far as possible, translating insights from research into practical tools. The more accessible the research, the greater the diversity of the participants. More diversity can enhance both the quality and legitimacy of research. In addition, wider engagement with research promotes scientific literacy among citizens. It also strengthens the position of science in society.
2. Coordinate diversity of participation and raise awareness of its added value
Involving a variety of perspectives in the formulation of research questions can improve the research agenda and make it socially more relevant. This is not just a task for researchers. Civil-society organisations can play a part in this, for example by highlighting the role and contribution of different public groups.
3. Make it attractive for researchers to engage public groups
Knowledge institutions should encourage researchers to step outside the box. The current system of recognising and valuing (and rewarding) researchers often gets in the way of more interaction with societal actors. But changes are afoot: the ambitions expressed by the VSNU, NFU, KNAW, NWO and ZonMw in 2019 must now be translated by the knowledge institutions into specific (policy) measures. For example, a good step would be to assess funding applications for the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) more closely in terms of engaging public groups.
4. Make expectations explicit, evaluate and reflect on public engagement
Involving public groups requires attention to specific aspects of the research approach and quality assurance. For example, it is important to pay attention to the quality of the data that citizens collect, the influence of the relationship between citizens and researchers on the quality of the research, and the learning experiences that citizens acquire during the process. Joint reflection on these aspects can give rise to interim adjustments to the research. Evaluation of public engagement requires a focus not only on the direct research output, but also on its wider impact: where do the results end up and how are they used?
5. Give citizens a say
It is motivating for people to get a say in the goal of the research, its execution and their own role in it. If those involved can influence the research to a certain extent and decide on their role in it, this will increase public support for research.
Public engagement with science is a human right. According to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits". Science flourishes and advances when scientists are free and autonomous, but not operate outside of society. Only when science works in tandem with society will it produce the benefits that we need: answers to the challenges we are facing together. For this reason, a practical search for meaningful public engagement with science is of fundamental importance.
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.
Scientists, engage society
This review has shown that public engagement with science becomes more meaningful as it makes science more democratic. Meaningful engagement gives citizens or societal actors a say in the direction in which science develops. This results in new research questions and increased public support for science. Ultimately, science also produces more knowledge that is socially useful or otherwise valuable.
In our study we demonstrated that the debate regarding, and policy on, public engagement with science goes back decades. We found promising real-world initiatives where different forms of engagement are put to the test. It also became clear that engaging public groups with science is not yet standard practice. It is not always self-evident to invite public groups to the scientific table as equal partners in discussions with researchers.
In order to engage society on an equal footing and organise democratic knowledge development, it is important to encourage scientists to involve public groups in their work. It is necessary to make this collaboration attractive to scientists, citizens and societal actors alike. Scientists must be recognised and rewarded for this. For citizens, engagement must be accessible, inclusive and fruitful.
In addition, it has become clear that there is no instruction manual for organising meaningful public engagement. Public groups can make a different contribution in every field and in every type of research. The practical steps in this section are not a recipe that anyone can use, with the right ingredients and preparation methods, to conjure up a dish of meaningful engagement. However, the steps do point in the right direction.
Our findings make it clear that the funding and other structures which organise public engagement with science need to be further developed. In the Netherlands, the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) is the most recent, concrete example of scientists being encouraged to engage public groups and of public groups being invited to engage with science. However, citizens and societal parties play a limited role in the selection of research proposals and the implementation of NWA research. If this programme is continued or expanded, there will be plenty of opportunities to make the engagement of citizens and societal actors more meaningful. This will enable a larger and more diverse group of people to be involved in the programming, selection and execution of research funded by the NWA. Scientists applying for NWA funding can be encouraged to engage public groups by also assessing their proposals on the basis of this criterion and by helping them to do so in a meaningful way. Making the assumptions explicit and reflecting on the public engagement process could become part of the NWA's evaluation.
We began this review with a reference to the right to science, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every human being has the right to "share in scientific advancement and its benefits". For science to flourish and advance, scientists are needed who are free and autonomous, but who do not stand outside of society. Only when science actually works in tandem with society will it produce the benefits that we need: solutions to the challenges, both large and small, that we are facing together. For this reason, a practical search for meaningful public engagement with science is of fundamental importance.