//How to listen and act on diverse voices to shape key research and innovation priorities?

How to listen and act on diverse voices to shape key research and innovation priorities?

Author: Sciencewise’s Programme Director, Simon Burall

How to listen and act on diverse voices to shape key research and innovation priorities?

Popular reviews of the UK in 2021 have been dominated by one thing; the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The one bright point has been the success of the COVID vaccines in reducing infection, transmission and hospitalisation rates. An important component of this success has been the UKRI funded Oxford vaccine demonstrating the role that innovation has to play in solving some of the world’s largest problems.

Over the course of 2021, the Government published its new Innovation Strategy and announced a significant uplift in funding for research and development over the next spending period, emphasising the importance the government is placing on innovation.

With nearly two decades under its belt, the experience of the Sciencewise Programme demonstrates that funding is not enough.

Effective innovation requires the active engagement of the public in:

  • determining research priorities and questions,
  • informing the development of governance and regulation, and
  • in prioritising investments in applications.

Indeed, without meaningful public engagement there are significant costs to developing policy which is disconnected from public perspectives.

Meaningful engagement has to have the potential to shape the direction and trajectory of scientific research and the innovations which emerge.

Key things to know before commencing public engagement

Align innovation policy to public expectations.

Go beyond surface level public opinions about what should and should not happen with a particular technology. It is better to use a range of engagement tools to understand the values which drive their opinions and their views on the trade offs which will have to be made when implementing policy.

Start from the assumption that public perspectives may have shifted post-Covid.

Attitudes to the role of science and government have shifted significantly for some publics and considerable work needs to be done to understand how they have shifted and how permanent these shifts are.

Avoid the assumption that the public is of one mind.

There are multiple publics, each of which is likely to be impacted by a technology differently, or at least have different perspectives on the potential risks and benefits. Work collaboratively with stakeholders and community groups so they can help shape your engagement work and ensure you hear from a diversity of voices.

Avoid engaging only with those who are easiest to find and speak to.

Go out of your way to actively include those easy to ignore.

This leads us to the final recommendation… 

What’s the optimum moment for public engagement? 

Don’t wait until policy is nearly decided.

Developing your strategy will require a number of things, but central is understanding two things:

  • the potential applications which could emerge and their real world implications;
  • the public and stakeholder perspectives which are developing as these applications emerge

Sciencewise can help

Over the past year alone the Sciencewise programme has supported thirteen public dialogues to support the development of policy better informed by public views on a range of issues including:

Updated strategic themes that will guide UKRI Sciencewise engagement

For 2022, the Sciencewise programme is focusing on a number of key issues of central importance to the Government’s innovation agenda: 

  • Climate and the environment
  • Data, AI and robotics
  • Health, ageing and wellbeing
  • Life sciences and biotechnology

If you’re interested in an early conversation about whether and how to involve the public in research and innovation policy or investment decisions in any of these areas contact us on [email protected] or [email protected]