- Link to the scientific book: Mattei P., Democratizing Science: The Political Roots of the Impact and Public Engagement Agenda, Bristol University Press (2022)
The new millennium is characterized by a shift towards a new model of public governance centered around the interaction and cooperation between State and non-State actors, driven by public-private mixes and engagement with the public (so-called, “Public Engagement”). In this changed policy environment, the role of the citizen is now elevated to co-producer of public services, and no longer a passive recipient of state benevolence. There is a differentiation between the old traditional roles citizens played in their encounter with public officials and the State (as voters, as rule followers, and beneficiaries of public services), and the new tasks of co-producers that collaborative governance entails. Government agencies have moved citizens’ participation up on their discursive and policy agenda to the extent that “public engagement” has become a golden value for good governance and public accountability. It is viewed positively by public officials and politicians because, among other benefits, it reduces costs and makes unpopular financial cuts more legitimate. It is also a way to offload public service provision, or some aspects of it, to NGOs and civil society associations with specific expertise and support among local communities.
Citizens as co-producers of public services
The interaction between public officials, professionals, street-level bureaucrats, and citizens has been mediated through markets, as the Entrepreneurial State devolved down public provision responsibilities to social actors and NGOs through market or quasi-market arrangements. Market accountability was important to the relationship between state provision and society.
What is the difference between a customer of a service and a coproducer when they collaborate with the state structures, and officials? I think there are fundamental differences between the two. The customer or client is someone who engages with public agencies and collaborates to deliver public services, but this occurs for private interests and personal and private benefit. For instance, a Social Security beneficiary and recipient engages with the government to receive a private and individualized product. However, citizens engage with public agencies as co-producers as part of a collective community and to promote societal and public goods.
Government policies of public engagement should be designed with an orientation toward the perspectives of the local communities and the general public. In this way, it is possible to move from a top-down model of public policies produced to obtain 'results' useful only to policymakers and politicians, to a model designed to obtain desired 'outcomes' supported by citizens. Therefore, the policy-making cycle should no longer be viewed as a 'top-down' process but increasingly a negotiation between several actors in the political system in which the end-users demand a greater role in the co-production of public goods. A study by Ackermann in 2004 advocates a co-governance model as the best possible one to promote civic engagement and to make the most of the best resources that civil society can offer.
The co-production model originally proposed by Carayannis and others in 2013 is at the heart of the policy change directed toward the adoption of public engagement for research. Coproduction stands on very different premises than the traditional linear view of the process of knowledge creation; instead, it is a dialogic approach whereby stakeholders are integrated at each stage of the research project. Traditional mechanisms, starting with basic research and ending with the application, have particularly been challenged in the social sciences, and we increasingly need nonlinear and flexible procedures (see a study by LERU in 2017).
Public Engagement with Science
The main assumption behind Public Engagement with science in the Higher Education sector is that mutual learning arising from the interaction and dialogue between scientists and the public will produce trust in science and support for evidence-based policymaking. Since 2000, public engagement has become a mainstream international government strategy to resolve the crisis in public trust. Illustrations of this move towards public engagement can be found at the European level and the national government level. For instance, the EU Action Plan 2001-2006 on Science and Society and the 2021 EU White Paper on Governance manifested clear concerns about the loss of public trust in science. This issue was central to the White Paper in particular. New technologies, public health, and environmental sustainability are some of the key areas of involvement and mobilization of the public. More recently, the Horizon Europe framework for research and technology emphasized the centrality of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), which orients research toward society and new cooperation between scientists and the public. Public engagement makes up the core of RRI and this new orientation. If the public is involved, science and technology policy-making is expected to become more legitimate, sustainable and accountable.
Thus, Public Engagement seemingly improves accountability and transparency, and it helps scientists involve society upstream and respond to people’s needs, not only to commercial pressures. Science is no longer a closed-shop activity between remote scientists, experts, and political elites. New governance settings have been adopted by research assessment and funding agencies. PE is not monolithic and encompasses different methods and policy instruments including consultation, participation, and direct involvement in the governance structures of agencies. There is great heterogeneity with regard to the content and geographical scope of PE activity. It varies from individual school projects with local communities, national conferences, and outreach events to interact with the general public and scientists’ dissemination of their results through new social media platforms. In the public engagement literature, we find a wide range of different methods and local/national practices policies and practices of public engagement.
Future Challenges of Evidence-Based Optimism
“Citizen science” has multiple and conflicting meanings, and it is far from representing a one-size-fits-all conceptualization of public involvement in science. One can distinguish between a top-down and a bottom-up approach. The understanding of the citizen’s role as a volunteer data collector and co-producer comes closer to a top-down view of participation and enlisting patients in large clinical trials and medical research projects. The bottom-up approach emphasizes practices that closely align with the active and direct involvement of citizens from the ground. This model favors the engagement of the lay public in the conduct and governance of research projects.
Citizens are not the subjects of research and should be, instead, empowered to define the orientation and objectives of science in society. The top-down approach presents a few risks when public engagement is viewed as mainly instrumental by government funding agencies; namely, it is a strategy to improve research grants and research impact without a genuine commitment to shared societal goods. In some contexts, citizen science has also been used as a strategy for fundraising and reaching out to philanthropists, and wealthy individuals. There is thus a blurred between government strategies to improve public trust in science, viewed as a collective societal good, and to promote financial vested interests and specific research priorities over others. In short, public engagement can be very attractive to governments interested in propelling labor and data-intensive research in a cost-efficient manner. Unless we promote a post-positivistic conception of science and policy-making, understood as a feature of post-normal science as put forward by Funtowicz and Ravetz, the risk is to fail to democratize science as intended.
Citizen science, collaborative governance, and public engagement have relied heavily on the expectations that citizens will eventually change their behavior towards evidence-based policies and transform their interactions with the academic community, leaving behind their passivity and showing greater enthusiasm for scientific facts. In the current debate, unfortunately, the relationship between experts and democracy is still dominated by the notion of public authority. In this way, the relationship between society and science is still influenced by the wrong assumption that it is possible to improve trust by providing more facts, more data, and more evidence to the ordinary citizen in what remains quite often a top-down approach.