Getting science out of the lab and into society

Experts debate how to involve citizens in science – and will continue the conversation at ESOF


“Innovation is essential to Europe’s goals and global goals. People need to understand science and that the debate is broader than the Digital Agenda.” — Robert Madelin, Senior Innovation Adviser for the European Political Strategy Centre of the European Commission.

“Science is not an opinion; it is a method.” — Sofie van Vanthournout, Director of Sense About Science Europe.

“Understanding how science works is key to scientific literacy … and true citizen science.” — Fiona Fox, Managing Director of the Science Media Centre, UK.

“Public engagement starts with transparency and openness.” — John Magan, Deputy Head of Unit - Future and Emerging Technologies of the European Commission.

Citizen Science panelThese are some of among the comments panelists made at the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the EU in Brussels in a session on the role and importance of science for society.

The event, organized by Elsevier together with REISearch and Sense About Science, was attended by about 60 representatives from European Union institutions, academia and cross-industry commercial as well as nonprofit organizations. It was a forum for sharing views and practical examples of how, when and why to bring science to the public.

Science for society, citizen science, public engagement with scientific evidence – whichever way it’s phrased, panelists and attendees agreed that involving citizens in the scientific debate is not something to question; it’s happening and it’s a good thing. The public is – and should remain – a key stakeholder in scholarly communication and science more broadly.

While consensus was evident that the public should play a critical role, participants’ views and recommendations were less in sync when they talked about how, why and what this role means.

Short presentations from various organizations highlighted concrete examples of how science is being shared with society and the objectives of these initiatives:

  • Sofie Vanthournout spoke about Sense About Science’s AllTrials campaign, which calls for “every clinical trial, past and present, to be registered and the results reported.”
  • Erika Widegren, Executive Director of Atomium Culture and Chairman of the REISearch Advisory Board, talked about REISearch, a European Commission co-funded project to create an online arena for responsible and informed multi-stakeholder debate. She said the goal is to better understand the evidence, the constraints and the opinions of citizens across Europe on key societal issues by bridging communication gaps between science, society, media and policymakers.
  • Tiziana Ferrari, Technical Director at EGI Engage, presented a pilot project created by EGI and LifeWatch. Citizens can share pictures of their natural observations, which are stored in an international repository for biodiversity.
  • Dr. Stephane Berghmans, VP of Academic & Research Relations EU for Elsevier, spoke about Elsevier’s Zika Virus Resource Center, which provides information and new research to healthcare professionals and the public free of charge to improve care and debunk myths and rumors around the dangerous virus. The website has had over 25,000 visitors since it was launched
  • Maggie Dallman, OBE, Associate Provost (Academic Partnerships) and Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London focused her presentation on ICL’s White City Maker Challenge Programme, which supports young people from disadvantaged urban communities to become the next generation of “makers” and entrepreneurs by enabling them to engage with science, engineering and design topics. The Elsevier Foundation is a key contributor to the program through its three-year grant.

When participants discussed the actual definition of “citizen science” – and whether citizens are merely at the receiving end of science or if they should play a steering role in forming the scientific agenda of the future – new themes quickly came to the table. These included the need for inclusion, knowledge transfer and transparency, academic literacy and translating outcomes into concrete proposals.

Panelists (left to right): Robert Madelin (European Commission), Ron Dekker (Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science), Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre, UK), Tracey Brown (Sense About Science, UK), Theo Karapiperis (Science and Technology Options Assessment, European Parliament), John Magan (European Commission).

Robert Madelin highlighted the importance of innovation for achieving European goals and the need for people to understand science. He questioned whether evidence-based policy is the end-all solution. For him, decision-making arises from a “Bermuda Triangle” comprising political judgment, value-preference and scientific evidence.

Ron Dekker, Director of Institutes, Finance and Infrastructure at the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), touched upon the importance of citizen science for conserving and transferring knowledge. Referring to the European Science Agenda put together under the recent Netherlands’ EU Presidency, he stressed the need for decision makers to involve citizens and to ask them the right questions.

Transparency was a key theme for John Magan, Deputy Head of Unit - Future and Emerging Technologies at the European Commission. While things are slowly moving in the right direction, he said, there is still a lot to do, including making allocation of science funding more transparent.

Theo Karapiperis, Head of Scientific Foresight, STOA Unit at European Parliament, stressed the need to “feed back” to the public after they have been involved in scientific experiments and to translate the outcomes of analyses into concrete proposals.

Meanwhile, members of the audience raised issues such as the difficulty of ensuring that citizens have scientific literacy to understand published research, and the practical difficulty of sharing best practices between countries due to linguistic differences.

Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science UK, embraced the “messiness of the discussion”, stating that it encourages us to think more critically about arguments made and what questions we are actually aiming to answer. She also warned against excluding minority views in science as there isn’t always just one answer.

Robert Madelin speaks about the "Bermuda Triangle": political judgment, value-preference and scientific evidence.

In summary it appeared that however broad the topic is and will remain, there is an overall perception that the conversation needs to continue and finding ways to further connect science and society is imperative.

Elizabeth CrossickElizabeth Crossick, Head of Government Affairs Brussels, for Elsevier’s parent company, RELX Group, ended the session by emphasizing that the high level of engagement among panelists and the audience could indicate a strong need to continue the conversation. She closed by saying:

Your comments and questions throughout the afternoon have only confirmed our view that there is a demand to do more thinking around citizen science, and we’re very keen carry on and deepen the discussion in similar sessions in the coming months. Stay tuned.

Citizen Science at ESOF

EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) Mancehester

The discussion on citizen science will continue at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Manchester, UK, July 27 from 10 to 11am. More details here: “Can citizen science deliver to society?




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