More citizen participation in research

20. May 2022
Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung

In a citizens' assembly, 55 randomly selected citizens from all over Germany developed guiding principles and recommendations on citizen participation in research policy. The Citizens' Report of the assembly was handed over to Roland Philippi, Head of the Policy Department at the Federal Ministry of Research and Education, on 19 May 2022.

In a total of seven sessions, the citizens had developed 25 recommendations as well as five overarching guiding principles. The guiding principles include the statement that citizen participation procedures should be open to a broad circle of participants, regardless of their individual life situation.

"Participation is an expression of living democracy"

"Citizen participation in research and research policy is an expression of living democracy," the citizens' assembly states. It should complement democratic structures and not circumvent them. Participation, it says, aims to give citizens a better insight into research. "The process should be unbureaucratic and simple," the assembly demands.

Among the citizens' assembly's recommendations is the proposal to set up an advisory central body to establish and promote a network and platform for citizen participation projects in science and research. The participants also recommend forming a body of politicians, scientists and citizens to set the agenda in the field of applied research in a needs-oriented manner. The goal should be a stronger participatory role of citizens in the area of applied research funding.

Quality criteria for citizen participation

For the approval of funding for research projects with citizen participation the assembly calls for parameters to be laid down in a guideline that define quality characteristics for citizen participation, such as a participatory research approach and criteria for the selection of citizens. Citizens should already be involved in the drafting of the guideline.

In suitable areas of applied research, citizens should be involved in funding procedures for research projects on the basis of their being affected and/or their knowledge of experience in the interest of the general public. Positions for participation officers at large research institutions should be promoted and participation in research and research policy in rural areas should be more firmly anchored.

Guidelines for citizen participation

Assembly participants also want guidelines for citizen participation in research to be developed and published. These should make it easier for researchers to strengthen and ensure the quality of citizen participation in all phases of the research process. Methods should be developed on how participation can take place and researchers can communicate their research results in a citizen-oriented way. These methods should be part of the training of researchers so that they are made aware of citizen participation and its benefits in research.

Other recommendations in the field of action support revolve around incentives for participation for citizens and researchers, public relations and the provision of additional financial resources to implement these measures.

"Firmly anchoring participation"

Already at the beginning of participation processes, the citizens' assembly wants common goals and criteria to be discussed and defined, by which in detail successful participation can be measured.

Basically, it says: "We recommend that participation be firmly anchored in research, research policy and society. The results of citizen participation should be integrated into political and scientific processes. Citizens should be heard as everyday experts and taken seriously. The results of citizen participation must be discussed transparently in appropriate formats (e.g. expert conferences) and institutions (in committees, parliaments, corresponding bodies and councils)."

The data developed in participation processes should be publicly accessible. As far as possible, research results should be available free of charge and additionally in generally understandable language, and it should be possible to further utilise them publicly.

Policy paper on citizen participation

With the citizens' assembly, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) intends to further develop its policy paper on citizen participation. The recommendations set out in the Citizens' Consultation Paper are to be incorporated into policy.

In the Citizens' Assembly on Research, 55 citizens had the opportunity to contribute their ideas, receive advice from experts and engage in intensive discussions in order to further strengthen participation in the field of research in the future. According to the Ministry, the goal of the Citizens' Assembly on Research was to make future participation processes for and with citizens even more attractive and citizen-friendly.

"Process very impressive"

The conclusion of the participants was positive. "I found the whole process very impressive. The organisation and facilitation were really great. What I really liked was the diversity of all the participants. I found it interesting that we came to a common conclusion so often," said an assembly member. "It's a privilege to be able to participate in participatory formats, but it shouldn't be that way," another assembly member noted.

Lucas Sostaric, as the youngest assembly participant, was also impressed: "I remember where I got the call at the beginning, I mean at the very beginning, asking if I wanted to participate in citizens' participation. I definitely had a basic scepticism, but I was also very excited and pleased about the offer. It then turned out that this offer was to change my view of 'participation' permanently. So if I had to answer how I experienced the Citizens' Assembly on Research, it would be that I experienced it with lively discussions and presentations."

Green Paper on Participation as a starting point

The starting point for the Citizens' Assembly on Research was the Green Paper on Participation, which represents a state of work on the topic. It bundles challenges to realise the full potential of citizen participation in the field of research as well as initial proposals to overcome these challenges. Based on this basis for discussion, a participation strategy is to be developed as a white paper with concrete recommendations.

"This is not only about increasing the use of participatory formats, but also about improving the quality of participation and promoting a culture of participation," the ministry explains. The Citizens' Assembly on Research was a core element of the citizens' consultation in the White Paper process and thus had a significant influence on the BMBF's participation strategy.

On the basis of areas for action, the meetings of the citizens' asssembly discussed, among other things,

  •     how participation can be anchored in research and research policy,
  •     how rights and concrete opportunities to exert influence can be structured, and
  •     which supporting measures should be taken to promote participation.

Process of the Citizens' Assembly

The Citizens' Assembly on Research met seven times between November 2021 and March 2022. In the first two introductory sessions, the citizens dealt with the topic of research as well as various application examples of citizen participation in research policy and research. In sessions 3 to 5, the assembly devoted itself to one of the three fields of action identified in the Green Paper process together with participation experts: Anchoring, Support and Influence and Rights. In session 6, the participants were able to discuss additional topics that were important to them. The last two-day session was used to formulate the recommendations.

In the newspaper "taz", journalist Manfred Ronzheimer criticised that the Ministry of Research was not prepared to invite the press to the presentation and the discussion with the Citizens' Assembly. Interested journalists were not admitted. "Due to the current scheduling situation, the participation of a representative of the management staff was not possible. This is usually a prerequisite for a press appointment. We therefore decided against press participation," the ministry said, explaining its decision. In the Ministry of Research, there had not even been a press meeting with the Citizens' Assembly, with or without a ministerial level, Ronzheimer criticised. There was also no press release on the results of the citizens' report.

Evaluation report criticises "weak public relations"

An evaluation report also criticises "the weak accompanying public relations work around the Citizens' Assembly on Research, which weakens the effect as a role model, but is also problematic in terms of discourse and democratic theory: because citizens selected by stratified random sampling deliberate on behalf of others, which is what the citizens who were not asked and selected should know about".

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