Hop on board: why stakeholder engagement matters in research and innovation

+ 25/11/2016

By: Michael Creek, Senior Advisor, Third-i

Edited by: Nikoleta Arnaudova, Policy Advisor, Third-i

As a society, we’re faced with some pretty serious challenges when it comes to health. From ageing populations to the Zika virus, we have to ensure we are equipped to tackle these issues head-on. For the solutions, we look to researchers and innovators, the great minds that have been coming to our rescue for centuries. But what happens when we don’t like the solutions we are presented with?

Sometimes we, as a society, are presented with remedies to grand societal challenges that a significant number of us simply find too hard to swallow. And we don’t need to look too far back in history for the perfect example. Remember Dolly, the sheep? The first cloned animal was an icon, a lovable little woolly symbol of Europe’s soaring progress in genetic modification. And yet, once the big news announcements quietened down and Dolly’s picture had been taken a million times, the scientists’ party was soon over. The hard truth had the final word: society was not ready for cloning and has remained very cautious of genetic modification in general. Even today, just the mention of GMOs can lead to very heated reactions, while the scientific consensus behind the technology is extremely solid. This is particularly valid in light of the latest developments on GMO Authorisation at the EU level. For post-industrial Europe, jostling for position with the US as the next big pioneering continent for research and innovation, genetic modification could have been hugely lucrative, creating wealth and jobs across the continent. Where did it all go wrong?

It’s a question Europe has been pondering over in recent years. How do we ensure that society is on board with the latest developments in research and innovation? Or perhaps more pertinently – how does the R&I process need to adapt, not only to win people over, but actually listening to them to ensure that science truly responds to society’s needs, rather than what it thinks society needs? To ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of Dr. Frankenstein – inspired, brilliant, convinced that he was about to win the eternal battle between the perishable human life and death itself, while to all others, this meant creating a monster.

Research and innovation cannot operate in a bubble, as these years of bitter experience have demonstrated. We have to talk, and we have to listen to each other. Science must be open, to actively reach out to all relevant stakeholders, including the general public. Depending on the sector, this can include  policymakers, academia, industry (pharma, biotech, diagnostics etc.), payers, HCPs, patient groups and caregivers. As Jack Stilgoe of UCL points out in one of his articles, this more inclusive debate must also ‘go beyond transparency, towards new forms of public dialogue.

And this doesn’t just mean starting the conversation once the product is ready to hit the market. Scientists have to reach out throughout the research process, taking stakeholder input on board, remaining inclusive, flexible, reflexive, responsive. This is where newer frameworks such as Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) really come into play, including at the EU level and for funding programmes like Horizon 2020 and beyond. With its Options for Strengthening Responsible Research and Innovation report, the European Commission outlined the need for R&I to take into account the social and environmental impacts of its processes – an example of what RRI is all about. More recently, the discourse around R&I has been more focused around Open Science, which brings the idea of stakeholder engagement in research together with principles such as open access to data and international collaboration.

Stakeholder engagement in R&I is about the crucial challenge – how do we bring such a variety of stakeholders together to engage them on these complex and controversial topics in health research? And how do we ensure their views are incorporated?

This is the first blog from our colleague Michael Creek, Senior Advisor here at Third-i. Michael designs tools which get people talking about the big ethical and social questions around research and innovation. In his second piece, coming up in the start of 2017, he will focus on the ‘how’ of stakeholder engagement, outlining some of the key methodologies and how participatory methods and serious games can be used. Stay tuned!

Third-i addresses complex healthcare issues through a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach that results in action-driven outcomes, leaving behind a legacy of change.