Opening Up Societal Futures through EU Research and Innovation Agendas

What kind of society do we want to build? What knowledge is necessary? For and by whom?

Such questions always underlie research agendas.  The answers generally have been pre-empted by dominant policy visions, along with expert appraisals sharing such visions. Potential futures are closed down, thus excluding the values or interests of the poorest and most marginal people (Stirling 2008).

Nevertheless EU Framework Programmes for Research and Technology Development have provided some scope to open up societal futures and to involve civil society organisations (CSOs) which likewise do so.   Many STS scholars have sought to go beyond the dominant agendas, sometimes by working with CSOs. This article describes efforts to broaden Horizon 2020, the EU research framework that will begin in 2014, following Framework Programme 7.

Tensions within EU research agendas

Tensions between divergent aims underlie the EU’s research Framework Programmes.  These have aimed to create a European Research Area (ERA) integrating and enhancing European knowledges. ‘Science is not just about knowledge but also about politics, ethics and quality of life’ (CEC, 2004).  The ERA’s vision has included the need to ‘democratise decision making, for a Science operating as a service to Society’ (European Council, 2008).

Yet this aim has been marginalised by dominant frameworks promoting capital-intensive technoscientific development through private-sector interests and public-private partnerships.  The Lisbon agenda has sought greater R&D investment to make Europe ‘the globally most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010’ (EU Council, 2000). ERA policies should be encouraging the EU ‘to become more competitive, including its industry’ (EU Council, 2007).

An explicit opening for different approaches came with the Commission’s Science and Society Action Plan (CEC, 2002). Since then the ‘Science in Society’ programme has provided scope to develop critical approaches, to involve CSOs and to explore alternative solutions. Some STS scholars have been employed in the Programme, many have been involved in workshops and reports, and many more have carried out studies that it funded.

Two studies illustrate those roles. In 2006 the Science in Society Programme delegated an expert group the task of evaluating the EU’s research policy, which then was emphasising the ‘Knowledge Society’.  The group’s report, Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously, criticised dominant policy narratives for imposing specific problem-diagnoses and solutions, while pre-empting alternatives. As a profound ambiguity in the Lisbon Agenda, ‘while it marked the growing pressures to translate fresh research insights rapidly into globally-marketable commodities, and to reorganise science accordingly, this has been accompanied by the explicit EU policy commitment to public engagement and respect for public doubts or scepticism’ (Felt et al., 2007: 11).

From a later study, the MASIS report emphasised ‘the normative challenge of integrating science in society, allowing for societal participation’ (DG Research, 2009a: 9).

Supplementing the generic instrument of ‘collaborative research’ projects, a Science in Society workshop developed the concept of ‘cooperative research’. This means civil society organisations becoming integrally involved in research agenda-setting and producing knowledge jointly with academics (Stirling, 2006).  This concept was translated into special calls for proposals on ‘capacity-building for CSO participation in research’ and ‘cooperative research’ itself, as a basis to fund several projects in FP6 and FP7 (e.g. Gall et al., 2009a; Karner, 2010; Levidow and Oreszczyn, 2012; Martinez-Alier et al., 2011). Some calls used a new funding instrument, ‘Research for the Benefit of Specific Groups-CSOs’; similar initiatives were taken up by the Environment programme and Social Sciences & Humanities programme.

An evaluation report of those experiences noted: ‘CSOs seek more active engagement to define research questions rather than just being recipients of research results’.  Cooperative research has sought to ‘promote forms of collaboration between research organisations and CSOs which offer a unique combination of knowledge production and proximity to citizens’ concerns’. Those relationships promote mutual learning among the participants (DG Research, 2009b).  CSOs’ involvement in projects has been extended by Mutual Mobilisation and Learning Action Plans – a new instrument with larger budgets (e.g. Martinez-Alier et al., 2011).  But such initiatives have remained marginal within Commission policy and vulnerable to the pressures turning public-sector research into a servant of global market forces and corporate interests.

Since the 1990s EC Framework Programmes have attributed societal progress to future advance in specific technological areas – infotech, nanotech, biotech, etc.  More recently, research agendas have been justified via ‘Grand Challenges’, as recommended by the Lund Declaration (2009).  It called for ‘issue-oriented research’ based on the grand challenges.

By contrast, Commission policy implies that all innovation is socially beneficial, with no need to steer priorities (von Schomberg, 2013, forthcoming). Nevertheless, they are steered: grand challenges have been generally framed in ways favouring capital-intensive technoscientific solutions, at the expense of other approaches. Like its predecessor, the Lisbon Agenda, the Europe 2020 Strategy emphasises the need for more efficient production techniques.  These are meant to facilitate ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ – sustainable meaning ‘a more resource efficient, greener and more competitive economy’ (CEC, 2010a).

As a key societal challenge, environmental sustainability is framed as a problem of inefficient resource usage – to be overcome through eco-efficient technoscientific innovation. This resonates with the Rio+20 Conference discourse on a green economy. ‘Sustainable development’ is more explicitly recast as economic growth which either ignores or maintains the fundamental drivers of resource demands (Brand, 2012a, 2012b).

Such policy framings and innovation agendas have been promoted by European Technology Platforms (ETPs). The European Council originally invited their formation as a means to involve ‘all relevant stakeholders’ in proposing research agendas.  Framework Programme 6 funded initial coordination of ETPs. Nevertheless, their agendas have been shaped by large companies and public-sector institutes closely linked to them (as exemplified by the agri-food sector, e.g. Levidow et al., 2012).

Extending the dominant assumptions, Europe has been rebranded as an Innovation Union, dependent on ‘research-driven innovation’ for economic growth. This emphasises technological innovation as the primary means to fulfil social needs which may not be met by the market or public sector (CEC, 2010b). ‘[This framework assumes] that innovation leads to more products and services in the market place, which leads to more consumption, hence to growth and more jobs, which in turn lead to increased well-being.  Also implicit within this approach is that environmental, social and economic sustainability will emerge as part of the package, but with few details of how this monumental challenge will be met’ (van den Hove et al., 2012: 74).

Likewise assumed is that technoscientific innovation enhances resource efficiency and thus reconciles economic growth with environmental sustainability – despite numerous historical examples to the contrary. Despite criticisms from many quarters, similar policy assumptions underlie the successor to Framework Programme 7 (2007-13).

Green Paper on Research and Innovation: critical responses

In February 2011 the European Commission published its Green Paper, Towards a Common Strategic Framework for European Research and Innovation Funding (CSF), i.e. a framework for the 2014-2020 budget. The Green Paper emphasized the need to strengthen European private industries: ‘Securing a strong position in key enabling technologies such as ICT, nanotechnology, advanced materials, manufacturing, space technology or biotechnology is of vital importance to Europe’s competitiveness’, to ‘secure the competitiveness of our businesses’.  It referred to FP7, which had already ‘introduced novel approaches to strengthen industry participation’, especially through European Technology Platforms and Joint Technology Initiatives, which ‘put industry in the driving seat through establishing formal public private partnerships’ (CEC, 2011a).

Despite the openings to civil society perspectives in the previous decade, the Green Paper returned to a deficit model, whereby ignorant or passive citizens/consumers must become better informed: ‘Better communication of our objectives and the relevance of our actions to a wider audience is also needed. The ultimate users of innovations (be they citizens, businesses or the public sector) should be involved much earlier in our actions to accelerate and broaden the exploitation of results and to encourage greater public acceptance in sensitive fields such as security or nanotechnology’ (CEC, 2011a).

Simultaneously the Commission launched a consultation among stakeholders (CEC, 2011b). Numerous comments came from academia, business and CSOs.  More than 1300 completed on-line questionnaires and 750 sent written responses.

The Green Paper had no commitment to continuing the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) Programme, so its extension was advocated by academic institutions. Eventually 25,000 researchers signed a petition for a distinct programme entitled, ‘Understanding Europe in a global context – transitions towards innovative and inclusive societies’. According to an Europe-wide alliance of national academies, ‘[i]f ‘innovation’ is to be defined in a holistic fashion as a complex and societally embedded process, it must also consider the educational foundations of society, gender equality and intergenerational justice, more generally speaking social and cultural preferences and values, as well as economic strategies and political decisions in the respective ‘innovation environments’, be they national, regional, local or sectoral’(ALLEA, 2011).

According to the UK affiliate, ‘the 2020 issues of sustainability and inclusion are not covered with the same attention’ as ‘smart growth’ in the Green Paper.  It mistakenly adopts ‘the ‘linear’ approach, in which basic research leads to applied research, then to inventions and finally to innovation’.  Regarding problem-diagnoses, ‘[…] insufficient attention is paid to the need for EU policy to take account of the requirement for fundamental analysis of societal problems [...] Furthermore, few of the ‘grand challenges’ which have been identified are likely to be susceptible to technological solutions, while all of them require analysis by social science and humanities research before political action’ (British Academy, 2011).

Similar criticisms came from Technology Platform Organics, which had found little scope for agroecological approaches within the ETP Plants for the Future and so formulated its own research agenda (Niggli et al., 2009); three years later, it is still not officially recognised by the Commission as a European Technology Platform.  According to its comments on the Commission’s Common Strategic Framework, ‘[a] purely technological understanding of innovation action focussing only on the production of commodities as raw materials for food and other industries is likely to miss the innovative potential that farms and food supply chains are able to offer’ (TP Organics, 2011).

In April 2011 numerous CSOs started to identify their convergent views on the CSF. An informal alliance emerged from CSOs active in various fields – such as Corporate Europe Observatory, Fondation Sciences Citoyennes, Health Action International, Statewatch, the Quaker Council for European Affairs, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, HEAL, BukoPharma, TestBiotech, etc. Through many discussions they formulated common criticisms and alternative agendas.

In 29 June 2011 the informal CSO alliance (our nomenclature) published an Open Letter, signed by 98 civil society and research organisations from 22 European countries. Together they criticised the Commission’s proposals: ‘Research & Innovation are portrayed as a race, for which the only alternative is to go faster or slower, but with no choice over direction.’  Moreover, the proposals gave priority to corporate interests and thus failed to address the real challenges faced by European societies. The letter called for a research agenda geared to those challenges: ‘In these rapidly changing times, research and innovation play a double role: they enable the broadening of knowledge and informed decision-making, but they also contribute to the emergence of problems. Research into nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals, agricultural genetic engineering, synthetic biology, nanotechnologies, space and military research – for example – has seen big business secure generous public subsidies despite widespread concern about their environmental and social impacts. This has marginalized and limited the funding available for research in important domains such as environmental protection, preventative health policy, organic and low-input agriculture, energy-saving and renewable energies, toxicology, water supply issues, and environmentally sustainable fisheries as well as for research in social sciences which contributes to social change and problem solving that are not focused on technological fixes’(CSO alliance, 2011).

The letter concluded with five key recommendations, calling on the EU to:

Overcome the myth that only complex, cost-intensive technologies can create employment and well-being;

Adopt a wider definition of innovation to include locally adapted, socially relevant research projects;

Establish a democratic, participatory and accountable decision-making process for research funding allocation, free from conflicts of interest and industry dominance;

Base decisions on expertise independent from commercial interests, and from a balanced representation of all stakeholders;

Ensure that the results of publicly funded research will be openly accessible to the wider society (CSO alliance, 2011).

On the same day as the Open Letter, the EU President unveiled the post-2013 budget proposal, the Multiannual Financial Framework.  The EU’s next research funding programme, from then onwards known as Horizon 2020, was proposed to have a budget greater than €80bn, approximately a third more than FP7. As the CSO alliance said in their press release, ‘Increasing a budget and improving a political strategy are two different things…. Now more than ever, public research and innovation are needed to create knowledge and tangible solutions to the challenges Europe is facing. Letting corporate interests hijack this effort would be a cruel failure for the EU, and an unacceptable waste of public funds in the midst of an acute financial crisis.’

While organising their common action on Horizon 2020, the CSOs highlighted specific themes to be included, alongside a demand to preserve the Science in Society programme, which had no guaranteed future. They submitted responses to the Commission’s public consultation and participated in workshops organised by DG Research.

Only the Commission as an institution is permitted to make proposals to the Council or European Parliament.  Within the Commission, individual units can make proposals for extra concepts or initiatives, but their inclusion may depend upon an external push.  So academic organisations and CSOs have a special advocacy task vis à vis the Parliament.

For their Horizon 2020 proposals, CSOs identified sympathetic MEPs in the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, especially its rapporteurs. Its subsequent report included many proposals from CSOs. For example: ‘In order further to attract the interest and involvement of citizens and civil society in research, [the Parliament] calls for the continuation of the Science in Society theme as a stand-alone and for its horizontal expansion to cover the great societal challenges; in addition, believes that the Commission should support further development and wider dissemination of guidelines on ethics, and the further development of instruments designed for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) [… ] calls for the creation of a specific platform for dialogue between CSOs and researchers for discussing research priorities areas in specific sectors; believes that specific platforms for closer interaction of SMEs and researchers should also be promoted’ (ITRE, 2011: 9).

But such elements would be included only through further advocacy efforts.

Horizon 2020 priorities: proposed, criticised and amended

After the public consultation process and an internal inter-service consultation, on 30 November 2011 the Commission announced its proposal for Horizon 2020.  As promoted by the Science in Society Programme, the concept ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI) was included under ’cross-cutting actions’.  This transversal role was explained as follows: ‘Horizon 2020 should favour an informed engagement of citizens and civil society on research and innovation matters by promoting science education, by making scientific knowledge more accessible, by developing responsible research and innovation agendas that meet citizens’ and civil society’s concerns and expectations’ (CEC, 2011c: 8).

The RRI concept has opened up scope for questioning and redefining the societal challenges to be addressed.  Such deliberations go beyond techno-optimistic economic expectations, beyond a global ‘race to catch up’ and likewise beyond a risk-benefit calculus – discourses which have constrained discussion of innovation priorities.  As a more open concept, RRI can inform a ‘design strategy which drives innovation and gives some “steer” towards achieving societal desirable goals’ (von Schomberg, 2013).

Following the Commission’s proposal, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers had an opportunity to comment. So the CSO alliance again contacted MEPs, who were generally more accessible and sympathetic than Council members.  Consequently, for its 20 March 2012 public hearing, the European Parliament invited two representatives of the CSO alliance as expert speaker on the Societal Challenges that should inform R&D priorities.

With the help of the Parliament’s Green Group, moreover, the CSO alliance organised a Roundtable, ‘Horizon 2020 for a more sustainable and fairer knowledge society: What role for the citizen, civil society and the public good?’  Held on 7 June 2012, the Roundtable was co-hosted by five MEPs; four were ITRE Committee rapporteurs for Horizon 2020.  The CSOs’ introductory talk reiterated points from the CSOs’ Open Letter, while also presenting a semantic analysis of the Commission’s proposal.   The text was pervaded by terms such as competitiveness, market, industry, SMEs, while citizens were relegated to consumers or end-users.  The text encompassed different meanings of ‘a transition towards sustainable development’, thus creating tensions among aims – environmental protection, social cohesion, equity, and economic prosperity. Nearly any research activity can be labelled as ‘contributing to sustainable development’, thus emptying the term of meaning (Neubauer, 2012; see methodological groundwork in Gall et al., 2009b).

The 7 June 2012 Roundtable was structured around six themes – citizens’ participation in research, innovation, resource efficiency, open access and equitable licensing, sustainable development, and governance. For each theme, CSOs prepared a set of questions, some exploring specific terms in the Commission’s proposal.  For example:

•           Do you agree that in H2020 the influence of industry needs to be counterbalanced by the inclusion of CSOs and other actors in agenda setting?  For including CSOs, do you support their involvement in setting agendas in all thematic priorities (e.g. health, agriculture, energy, transport, environment)?  How will Horizon 2020 structure the systematic inclusion of practitioners such as farmers and end-users?

•           How should H2020 pursue its commitment to ‘an absolute decoupling of economic growth from resource use’?  How should research agendas distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable development?

•           How can high-tech claims be balanced against low-tech or other alternatives, in order to select those research proposals that make a real difference in achieving a sustainable development?

•           What legal obligations will H2020 adopt in its Rules of Participation to ensure mandatory Open Access publishing of results of research financed by the EU?

Afterwards the CSO alliance and its member organisations continued to criticise the dominant priorities of the Commission’s proposal.  For example: ‘[T]he ‘Industrial Leadership’ component of Horizon 2020 explicitly states that this money will support activities whose agenda is industry-driven. Is transforming research funding into subsidies to big business the best possible use of scarce public funds?’ (Pigeon, 2012).

The CSO alliance proposed that substantial funds be shifted from Industrial Leadership to Societal Challenges.   The alliance sent MEPs numerous amendments, including those shown in italics below, e.g. seeking to strengthen ‘responsible research and innovation’:

Particular attention shall be paid to ensuring the adequate participation of CSOs in Horizon 2020.

The activities shall focus on more sustainable, resilient and productive agriculture and forestry systems which are both resource-efficient (including low-carbon, low external input and organic farming), protect natural resources, are diverse and can adapt to a changing environment and are resilient, while at the same time developing services, concepts and policies for diverse food systems and thriving rural livelihoods.

Enabling all societal actors to interact in the innovation cycle increases the quality, relevance, acceptability and sustainability of innovation outcomes by integrating society’s interests and values (responsible research and innovation)[…]
A scientifically literate, responsible and creative society will be nurtured through the promotion of and research on appropriate science education methods. It also includes participatory research where scientists and CSOs co-produce protocols and knowledge in order to respond to society needs.

The Parliamentary process of negotiating amendments continues through autumn 2012. The legal text will be adopted in 2013, for funding projects to start in 2014.  Within the overall framework of Horizon 2020, stakeholder proposals can still influence annual work programmes.  In general CSOs need more opportunities for engagement with staff setting research agendas in order to influence them.

Conclusions 

Despite a dominant policy framework promoting capital-intensive technoscientific solutions, EU research offers opportunities to explore alternative ‘innovation’ models and societal futures. By involving diverse stakeholders and knowledges, some projects have reconsidered the ‘societal challenges’ that inform the dominant framework.   Its narratives and visions have been critically analysed, thus stimulating debate on its implicit politics.

But these opportunities have been fragile – contingent on tensions and ambiguities within EU research policy.  To broaden the EU agenda, researcher organisations have proposed a special programme on ‘‘Understanding Europe in a global context’.  CSOs have counterposed different research priorities and innovation models, often in cooperation with research organisations.  Specific proposals include:

  • Valorise, strengthen and mainstream ‘Science in Society’ activities.
  • Mainstream ‘responsible research and innovation’ as a transversal theme, redefining the societal problems to be addressed.
  • Reward researchers’ cooperation with CSOs and encourage professional mobility to the non-profit sector.
  • Raise CSOs’ awareness about research policy and research opportunities.
  • Create long-term relationships through support structures for research cooperation with and among CSOs.

Beyond the short timescale of most research projects, CSOs have a long-term capacity to elaborate and promote alternative research agendas.  Academics can assist these efforts through cooperation with CSOs in policy interventions as well as research projects.

Acknowledgements

This article extends analyses from two research projects:

  1. ‘Science, Technology and Civil Society (STACS): Civil Society Organisations, actors in the European system of research and innovation’, funded by Framework Programme 6, Science in Society Programme, during 2007-09; and
  2. ‘Co-operative Research on Environmental Problems in Europe’ (CREPE), funded by Framework Programme 7, Science in Society Programme, during 2008-10.

For helpful editorial comments on previous versions, we thank Silvio Funtowicz, Ann Rudinow Sætnan (EASST Review editor) and Rene von Schomberg.

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Contact details

Claudia Neubauer, Fondation Sciences Citoyennes, claudia.neubauer@sciencescitoyennes.org, www.sciencescitoyennes.org

Les Levidow, Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, L.Levidow@open.ac.ukhttp://dpp.open.ac.uk

 

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