In the recent years, mostly due to the economical crisis and evolution in science policies, the pressure on scientific research to be relevant for society is increasing (see picture from Utrecht). Current definition of relevance is usually restricted to economical outcomes such as technological and medical applications. Many scientists disclaim the pressure for relevance on their shoulder, arguing that serendipity has always been a driver in scientific discoveries. Expected relevance of research is therefore almost impossible, as genuine innovation cannot be predicted. Without entering this debate, which could be the topic of an entire blog-post, I propose that the current definition of relevance needs to be widen and take into account social relevance. I have recently take part in a new involvement of citizen in research (http://www.joursavenir.org/ncs/en), which I believe can help to define social relevance of research.
What is a socially relevant research? This question needs to be answered by Society at large but today we lack the tools to enable it. Researchers have been used for so long to decide what is a relevant scientific question among themselves. They dislike situations where they are evaluated by Society, arguing that most people don’t have enough knowledge to judge. Positioning people as evaluators of research generates even more divisions between scientists and non-scientists. Instead people can be involved since the start of the research, that is to say they can co-define the research questions with the scientists (and also perform the research but I’m not discussing this part). In such a co-definition process, the question is neither the one of scientists approved by citizens, neither the one of citizens received by scientists, but it emerges from a shared interest. A research being co-defined with citizens will therefore increase its relevance by directly being in dialogue with groups of people who benefit from the answers in using the research results. Some research in agriculture has already shown that it is feasible to involve people in the definition of the research question (ref). I believe this can be extended to other types of research, including very fundamental fields.
To achieve this, new tools that involve groups of people into the construction of the scientific research need to be invented. Citizen science research has already developed protocols that involve citizens in fundamental research but the involvement is restricted to data analysis (ref). With Atelier des Jours à Venir, we have started to create and experiment new type of tools in the context of the New Patrons of Science’s project (http://www.joursavenir.org/ncs/en), funded by Fondation de France. This project identifies groups of citizens that have a common interest and have them co-design and perform a research with researchers.
We have chosen to start experimenting these tools together with people that are far away from the corridors of power where science policy is decided. For our tools to be valid, it has to work with the people who are usually not represented when the relevance of research is decided. If we want to achieve more social relevance to research, we need to get a diverse representation of the interests of people. Although it may seem a challenge, we have already shown that such public can ask genuine scientific questions (http://joursavenir.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/science-magazine-aug-15th-2014-kids-questions-transcend-conflicts/). The future will tell us in which context it is possible to involve groups of people in the design of a research questions and we will inform you on our progress.
To conclude, as a researcher, I would like to say that working on research questions that are co-defined with citizens not only makes it easy to fill in the relevance part of your research grant. The process of co-construction can make your research project evolve towards more society-relevant issues. This strengthens your motivation by connecting your work to one of the reasons we are involved in research: contributing to society.
This article has been co-published on both the immune modeling and the atelier des jours à venir blogs.