As the funding programmes for research and innovation evolve, the relationship between the R&I community and the society in general will also continue to transform. These evolving dynamics will highlight the important role that stakeholder engagement has in research and innovation practices.
A new 7-year funding programming period will start in 2021, with the new Framework Programme for research and innovation – Horizon Europe – lasting until 2027. Substantial changes are expected concerning the way science-society relationship will be addressed. Both in the current and in the previous European framework programmes for research and innovation, all matters related to science-society relationship have been explored through dedicated funding channelled through the Science with and for Society work programme. The evolution of research approaches and methodologies, the integration of gender perspective in research, the adaptation of ethics frameworks to emerging technologies, participatory methodologies to reflect citizens’ and stakeholders’ views into research assumptions and processes, as well as all needed institutional adaptations to embed open access, open data or gender equality approaches in daily practices, constituted the direct object of the research funded under this work programme.
As of 2021, instead, what is expected is a progressive mainstreaming of such methodologies and approaches across all themes and vertical R&I sectors. Both the R&I community and society are still largely unprepared to embrace such a shift. Indeed, such change would represent a real revolution in the way research and innovation interprets its role within society, as well as how activities are conducted and organised. For example, the choice of research priorities and technological development orientations could potentially be deeply affected by the increased participation of society in the scientific world and a radically changed relationship and exchange between science and society, with possible confusion and misunderstanding regarding each one’s role and perimeter of action.
Stakeholder engagement represents a big part of such a shift. Reaching out to knowledge existing “out there”, facilitating meaningful dialogue across quadruple helix actors, listening to society and taking into account its values, fears and suggestions is considered key in order to increase solutions’ acceptability and the social impact of science. Such an approach, in particular in the shape of co-creation and co-design, calls for a deep involvement of all actors even as of early stages of problem setting and solution ideation.
Stakeholder engagement approaches – which are often still at an experimental stage and have not fully found their placement in established research and innovation practices – raise reflection points and tricks that need to be managed. In order to be meaningful, express a real added value, produce hints with the right level of insight and complexity, stakeholder engagement processes need to be designed and performed with a sufficient degree of awareness. The whole research and innovation community must learn criteria through which drawing perimeters and deciding when, how, for what and at which extent the wisdom of the crowd is relevant, and what specific weight we must attribute to societal contributions, case by case. We must learn how to make the most out of the merge of inhomogeneous types of knowledge (e.g. specialists versus non-specialists), expressions of different values and visions of the world.
Science communication puts the focus on how conveying specialist knowledge to non-specialist in a way that is appropriate, understandable, engaging and properly reflecting the scientific methodology. One of the main challenges science communication is facing nowadays is the so-called post-truth society: with the disintermediation of information production any user-generated unfiltered and non-expert knowledge can potentially mobilize support and backing online, engaging followers and supporting anti-scientific movements.
It is clear that we are witnessing a double-flow movement: on the one hand, we are heading towards increasing openness in science processes, intensifying the exchange with and the participation of non-specialist actors; on the other hand, the scientific community increasingly needs to defend its authority and outline clear perimeters between qualitative scientific communication and non-trustable spreading contents. What is then the relationship between science communication and stakeholder engagement in science? Are the two aspects linked, and how? How can we take into account the worries of society without diminishing the importance of specialist insight and knowledge? Can experts and non-expert meaningfully interact and understand each other if their conclusions are based on very different (sometimes incompatible) assumptions on certain issues?
The way a dialogue between expert and non-expert knowledge is to be managed, and how bridges are to be created between different knowledge systems, still represents one of the biggest challenges the world of research and innovation will have to address. The proper mastering of methodologies and processes to manage collective intelligence and facilitate dialogue is fundamental at this stage, to address subtle dynamics such as power structures, group effect distortions, cognitive biases of all sorts, misunderstanding related to different cultural and knowledge backgrounds.
In other words, a deep understanding of communication dynamic is key in order to make the most of the wisdom of the crowd, in order to address conflicts arising from different value systems, different cognitive approaches and different abilities in interpreting knowledge and generating meaning. This is a space for the science communication community to grow and evolve, teaming up with the stakeholder engagement practice community, towards new challenges and endeavours.