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  • Final Report Summary - PSX2 (Participatory science and scientific participation: The role of civil society organisations in decision making about novel developments in biotechnologies)
FP6

PSX2 Streszczenie raportu

Project ID: 44594
Źródło dofinansowania: FP6-SOCIETY
Kraj: Italy

Final Report Summary - PSX2 (Participatory science and scientific participation: The role of civil society organisations in decision making about novel developments in biotechnologies)

The ultimate aim of the PSX2 project was to explore the participatory role of Civil society organisations (CSOs) in new scientific and technological developments, with particular reference to experiences in the development of agricultural biotechnology (genetically modified plants, food and feeds).

The project was considered not only as a contribution to the debate on the difficulties of participatory strategies and on the possible remedies, but also as a pioneer attempt to raise the issue of a more participative form of conducting science. The overall objective was to increase the social relevance of scientific research through the promotion of public participation in European research activities. It was anticipated that both the project process and its outcomes can be used to encourage dialogue and constructive engagement between civil society organisations and scientific research institutions. To this end, PSX2 established a platform of ongoing exchange and collaboration between scientists and CSOs throughout the entire project and beyond.

A main goal was to individuate patterns and trends in participation in science in six European countries as defined from the perspective of a number of organisations active in the debate on novel agricultural biotechnology. Their representatives were invited in order to talk about their views and expectations from the participation in science. Therefore, the aim was not to give an objective portrait of participation in science but rather to solicit the views of some of the actors involved in this debate. Focus was laid on civil society organisations, which were not often reached by scholarly inquiries. In this respect, the composition of the project team had the advantage of representing both scientists and CSOs, which contributed to a better understanding of how to approach and involve other CSOs in the study. The project was designed to cover countries, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, with a more established participatory tradition, as well as countries (such as Estonia, Italy and Spain) in which CSOs activism in the field of science policy was relatively new and understudied. Since the project partners were located in these countries contacts with CSOs were to establish. In addition, a small number of interviews in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden were conducted as in those countries some organisations with interesting experiences of participation were identified by project partners. Thus the aim of soliciting the participation in the study of as many CSOs as possible took priority over the need to select a representative sample.

The CSOs identified and contacted included, but were not limited to, environmentalist organisations, farmer unions, church organisations, as well as organisations working for social justice. Several of the contacted CSOs decided to remain anonymous and others manifested skepticism towards the intention of the European Commission (EC) of compiling a list of CSOs active in the debate over Genetically modified organisations (GMOs).

The selected methodology was based on qualitative interviews. In a qualitative study, some initial hypotheses are formulated but all interviews were exploratory in character and directed towards generating new hypotheses. As much as possible, narrative style answers from the CSOs representatives that accepted invitations to take part in the inquiry were solicited. PSX2 partners agreed on a protocol for interview questions that could be adapted to different national contexts and to a wide range of targeted CSOs, differing in size, organisation and mission. Additionally, CSOs that preferred sending written questionnaires were encouraged to do so. The advantage of this flexibility in the methodology was to reach organisations that normally do not participate in more structured surveys, but were willing to volunteer precious information through a more personal interaction with the project team.

The main output of the project was the handbook 'Participation in science and scientific participation. The role of civil society organisations in decision-making about novel developments in biotechnologies', based on the analysis of the interviews and of the in-depth case studies produced.

From the interviews' feedback it was found that for civil society organisations, participation in publicly funded science was never accomplished easily. Where participatory action was initiated outside the institutional and regulatory framework, it was often seen as blocking progress, rather than adding an alternative perspective or wider peer review. But, contrary to popular perception, it was found that CSOs that were engaged in debates about the development of agricultural biotechnology were not anti-science. The interviews demonstrated the existence of a general interest of CSOs for dialogue and participation, but also the presence of enormous barriers and the absence of adequate tools and resources to realise meaningful participation.

CSOs believed that the first step was to begin by reconsidering the relationship between science and society, and then for institutions to start thinking in terms of science in society. Within this perspective, it was also necessary to recognise that science is always the result of a process of co-production in which several actors contribute with relevant knowledge and where relative social order is negotiated at the same time. In this respect, many CSOs felt that current institutional policy-making frameworks were disproportionately oriented towards the cooperation between science and industry, leaving other actors within civil society under-represented, if not entirely out of the picture. They believed that there is a need to re-examine the way science feeds innovation so that the whole process is more transparent and equitable.

As a result of the definition of participation in science along the lines proposed by the CSOs, the engagement of civil society in an early stage in the research process (upstream) becomes crucial. This was not to suggest that contribution at later stages, such as the regulatory one, or the provision of counter-expertise, is no longer important. On the contrary, an early engagement of CSOs in the research process would enhance and strengthen their contribution in all other possible stages and contexts, depending on their vocation and strengths. This suggestion did not arise spontaneously but was the result of wider considerations of the relationship between the scientific community and the wider society.

The primary intention was to focus on 'good practice' in participation but it was found that CSOs believed themselves to be operating within a structure that fundamentally denies them opportunities for meaningful participation. Almost all the events and the schemes implemented to enhance invited participation were found to be unsatisfactory and the general perception was that not enough effort was made to make participation schemes work. For example, invited participation was incorporated within a bureaucratic system that closes down debate, rather than opening it up. CSOs suggested that this is because there is no 'capacity' within organisations to take on board the outcomes of this wider participation. However, as the case studies showed, there are a few initiatives that, given commitment and continued support, show promise in longer term. Uninvited participation, on the other hand, is more immediate. It is about opening up the debate and creating opportunities for CSOs to make their views heard: in courtrooms, in legal challenges, in consumer boycotts and in media campaigns.

Participation in regulatory stages of science and innovation process can only occur if civil society has been on board ever since the agenda setting stage opened. It is not legitimately possible to expect CSOs and wider society to participate at the regulatory stage if they have not been consulted or involved in early stages, simply because the products of the innovation process to be regulated come to be perceived as totally alien and unsafe. On the contrary, if these products result from both a combined effort and a shared path, all the actors involved would be responsible for the outcomes that they can legitimately perceive as 'belonging' to them. In addition, although this wider involvement would inevitably slow down the innovation process, it may uncover problems before huge investments are made and also lead to more creative innovation because of a broader range of experience drawn upon. It was suggested that closer identification with science and innovation trajectories would facilitate responsible action and build mutual trust amongst those who collaborate to bring these products to life in a more sustainable way.

An important outcome was also a list of recommendations for improving the practice of CSOs' participation which concerned the ten principles of effective participation.

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