Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Research Councils UK (RCUK) (PE 6)

1. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership set up to champion research supported by the seven UK Research Councils. RCUK was established in 2002 to enable the Councils to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities, contributing to the delivery of the Government’s objectives for science and innovation. Further details are available at

2. This evidence is submitted by RCUK and represents its independent views. It does not include, or necessarily reflect the views of the Knowledge and Innovation Group in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The submission is made on behalf of the following Councils:

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Medical Research Council (MRC)

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

3. The RCUK Public Engagement with Research strategy1 includes a commitment to identifying public attitudes and values to be considered through the lifecycle of research and fostering debate that will enable public aspirations and concerns to contribute to Councils’ policies and research strategies.

4. RCUK welcomes this inquiry into public engagement in policy making to promote direct public participation, but considers that both face-to-face public dialogue and the use of digital platforms are necessary and important. However the use of digital platforms is not a substitute for other forms of engagement and should be considered in this context. The use of digital platforms can be useful to achieve a greater volume of responses with fewer resources. There is scope to look at a whole range of digital platforms as a facet of wider engagement methodologies; indeed RCUK are funding research looking at digital technologies. However, face-to face dialogue is extremely effective and tested in policy making and helping to design and influence research strategies. A well-managed public dialogue, and longer-term engagement and deliberation, can allow all participants to hear and respond to each others’ views, exchange learning and explore and interpret discussion in more depth. RCUK therefore recommends a policy which integrates digital technology and face-to-face dialogue to promote direct public participation.

5. Successful public dialogue can play a key role in supporting more open research governance and decision making, which is recognised to be a condition of wider public confidence in the research system. RCUK have recently conducted a review2 to look at the lessons learned from their commissioned public dialogues. The report found that Research Council public dialogues with research have been carried out to high standards and have led to important and productive impacts on Research Council work. It also highlighted international recognition for RCUK’s commitment to public dialogue and innovation in upstream engagement. The review identified six main areas where public dialogues have provided value and made tangible positive impacts to the work of the Research Councils:

Better understanding of public attitudes relating to an emerging area of research;

Better understanding of publics as potential end-users or consumers of research;

Researchers stimulated to reflect on the social implications of their research;

Directly inform Research Council thinking, strategy and decision making;

Promote stronger stakeholder engagement with NGOs and civil society; and

Contribute to wider public debate about emerging research and technologies.

6. RCUK have carried out over 15 public dialogues since 2003. Public dialogue was part of the process used to develop a call for research proposals in nanotechnology for healthcare under the cross Council theme, Nanoscience through Engineering to Application. The findings of this public dialogue were used alongside advice from the research and user community in the development of the scope of the call. In 2007, RCUK conducted a major public dialogue exercise to understand the public’s priorities for evaluating energy research to ensure that the public’s voice was heard by the Research Councils as part of a major spending review to decide future energy research investment. The outputs from this public dialogue activity were fed into the Energy Programme directly. The criteria developed through public dialogue helped to sharpen the way issues were debated.

7. In addition to launching new research programmes, RCUK public dialogues have helped new science and technology areas move forward. For example, the 2008 stem cell dialogue. This consisted of stakeholder interviews and deliberative workshops across the UK, to identify peoples’ views around stem cell research. The report demonstrated strong public support for stem cell research, confidence in regulation, and trust in scientists, but that support is conditional on a number of issues around consent, commercialisation and the use of embryos. This dialogue took place alongside debates on the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which was passed in 2008. More recent dialogues include engaging the public in issues around open data and geo-engineering to help inform future policies in these areas. STFC have also recently embarked on a public dialogue on space weather involving a range of stakeholders to consider social and ethical issues, and potentially influence STFC’s future strategy in this area.

8. RCUK fund research exploring the possibilities offered by digital technology for alternative forms of engaging the public in policy making. One of the AHRC’s Knowledge Exchange Hubs, the Creative Exchange3, led by Professor Rachel Cooper at Lancaster is exploring digital innovation in public services and democratic processes. There is also work under the cross-Council Connected Communities programme4 on community engagement with government, and the cross-Council Digital Economy (DE) programme.

9. The VoiceYourView (vYv) is a cross-disciplinary research project funded by the DE programme. It is a collaboration between five leading universities in the UK and aims to develop technology which allows people to express their perceptions of safety in public spaces wherever and whenever they want—that is, vYv will capture spontaneous comments from members of the public in real time. These comments can be used to improve the safety of public space designs. It differs from traditional public consultation because all users have opinions about the spaces in which they live and work. vYv aims at what traditional public consultations find it difficult to do, that is let people air their views when and where they want and present them to the best effect for decision makers to take action. It uses techniques from artificial intelligence (AI) such as automatic text analysis to filter, structure and classify the collection of tacit knowledge from various input devices (such as smart phones, e-mail or a voice phone call). Annex A includes a case study on the Derry District Policing Partnership.

10. The RCUK review of public dialogues found five organisational factors that were critical to ensuring that dialogues play their part in ensuring that public aspirations and concerns contribute to Councils’ policies and research strategies. Other organisations may also be able draw on these findings and the internal resources5 RCUK have produced to support their staff who are involved or interested in delivering public dialogues and how to approach this.

Devote sufficient time to upfront planning of the dialogue, this includes clarifying the purpose, ensuring timing is appropriate for feeding into specific decision;

Ensure the dialogue has visible and active high-level support from senior managers within the Research Councils and also relevant senior researchers;

Value of being there—it is widely acknowledged that the most powerful impact from dialogues is on those individuals who participate in (or at least observe) the dialogues;

Appropriate oversight—the role of advisers from within Research Councils and external stakeholders is critical to steering a successful dialogue, but also it is an important mechanism to link the dialogue into relevant Council processes and external agendas; and

Ensure there is organisational capacity to learn from the dialogue—this could mean staff with knowledge and experience of dialogue, and as in the case of the BBSRC and EPSRC having societal issue advisory groups.

11. As outlined above RCUK welcomes this inquiry to encourage direct public participation in policy, but recommends a policy which integrates both face-to-face and digital platforms to achieve this. RCUK would also be happy to share research findings and best practice in this area.

October 2012

Annex A

Digital Economy Case Study

One particularly good example of success in using digital platforms was work done with the Derry District Policing Partnership (DDPP; one of 26 district policing partnerships that were set up between district councillors and the local community to monitor local police performance, to represent community views on policing and to gain the public’s cooperation in crime prevention) and Derry City Council (DCC). This looked at the public’s confidence and satisfaction with the local police force. The outcome, through “Crime Perception Maps” was a better relationship between the police and the community (which had been rife with confrontation for many years and felt they had been ignored by the authorities). Simple ways of using technology to engage with local government meant citizens felt greater empowerment and more integrated with their community. This has resulted in policy changes in Northern Ireland.

1 Research Councils UK Public Engagement with Research Strategy

2 Public Dialogue Review: Lessons from public dialogues commissioned by the RCUK

3 The Creative Exchange:

4 The Connected Communities cross-Council theme:

5 Doing Public Dialogue: A support resource for research council staff and Dialogue with the Public: Practical Guidelines

Prepared 31st May 2013