More open = more participatory? Open Science and Policy advice
by Stefan Reichmann, Nicki Lisa Cole, Antónia Correia, Eloy Rodrigues, Bernhard Wieser, Tony Ross-Hellauer, Pedro Príncipe
Set against the backdrop of the grand societal challenges that are reflected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the ON-MERRIT project aims to critically interrogate whether Open Science and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) live up to the positive claims of their proponents and whether cumulative advantage and disadvantage may be present within or exacerbated by Open Science and RRI practices. Open Science (OS) and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) promise to make scholarship transparent, inclusive, and participatory. In addition they aim to increase the academic, economic and societal impact of research outputs by fostering the use of publicly available scientific outputs by civil society actors, policymakers, and the general public.
Work Package 5 of ON-MERRIT investigated how Open Science might impact the uptake and use of scientific outputs by policymakers, specifically. Here, we share our research aims and findings and how they relate to the wider aims of the ON-MERRIT project.
Investigating the role of open research outputs in decision-making
Governance increasingly relies on expert knowledge, with demand for public participation to strengthen the legitimacy of the policy process. However, there is a tension between the normative demands for knowledge-driven governance and participatory governance. Indeed, expert knowledge has been framed as a threat to democracy, as the principles underlying democracy (e.g. inclusion, equality) seem to be patently incompatible with epistemic needs, which raises the issue of the legitimacy of experts. This epistemic-democratic tension raises serious problems for the policy-expertise-relationship. Understanding the prospects for Open Science practices depends upon investigating the role of scientific evidence in policy making more broadly. The work conducted in Work Package 5 provides ample material to answer this and further questions. Our strategy was, first, to synthesise research on uptake of (open and closed) research outputs within policy-making (results of which have been made available in our report D5.1 Scoping Report: Open Science Outputs in Policy-Making and Public Participation). Further, we used surveys and interviews to understand the extent to which policymakers make use of scientific resources (results are available in Deliverable 5.2). Finally, we investigated participatory processes (research that aims to include a broad range of social groups) to understand how they provide a knowledge basis for deliberative policy-making. We invited policy-active researchers to a series of workshops, each themed for one of ON-MERRIT’s case-study disciplines, who were then asked to
share their experience with participatory processes
reflect on barriers to participation as well as facilitating policy-making through their research
question how the voices of various stakeholders (including their own) were or were not heard (results available in Deliverable 5.3).
Open Science Outputs in Policy-making and Public Participation
When starting our work on uptake of scientific outputs by policy makers, our first task was to review existing work on research uptake. We quickly realized that empirical evidence regarding the impact of OS practices on policy advice was scant at best. In fact, in some areas, most notably public health, the relationship between evidence and policy is described as a “gap” to highlight the difficulties that prohibit the use of scientific results in policy making. How can open research practices impact research uptake, then, if policy makers do not make sufficient use of scientific outputs as it is? Deliverable 5.1 addressed this question by systematically summarizing evidence on how policy makers use scholarly resources with a special focus on open research practices.
The discussion surrounding scientific policy advice is most developed in the area of public health, while in other domains (agriculture, climate), the problem seems to be of a different kind. In particular, the evidence-policy gap describes difficulties of translating scientific evidence into actionable policies. Indeed, researchers and policymakers are described as living in different and frequently incompatible worlds. Policymakers resort to scientific advice when dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, seeking information that is timely, relevant, credible, and readily available. They also struggle with knowledge management and appraisal of research outputs, in addition to a lack of resources, knowledge, and skills to make use of research. Awareness of scientific developments among policymakers is low, and few academics take part in the policy process. On the other hand, access to relevant and clear information and good relationships between researchers and policymakers foster research uptake. Policymakers prefer receiving information through personal networks rather than academic publications. Our findings further suggest that improved infrastructure for information sharing could have a positive impact on the use of evidence in policy making. The deliverable further suggests that both RRI and Open Science continue earlier attempts to negotiate the role of science in society. The science-society relationship amounts to a complex interplay of competing forces and trade-offs between academic autonomy and the capacity of science to serve societal needs. RRI invites us to rethink the science-society relationship by bringing together societal relevance, claims to autonomy, public policy, and Open Science practices in novel ways, drawing on elaborated methods and conceptual frameworks from the long history of negotiating the science-society relationship.
Uptake of Open Science in information seeking practices in policy-making
Whereas Deliverable 5.1 sought to review existing evidence on research uptake by policymakers, Deliverable 5.2 used survey and interview instruments to better understand policymakers’ habits of information-seeking and use, as well as general levels of awareness of open research practices. A case study of Portuguese policymakers sought to refine findings from the scoping report.
Our respondents reported using scientific information regularly in support of their political and legislative work. As was found already in our literature review, within this setting, academic literature is often of marginal importance as policymakers and their support staff predominantly rely on policy briefs, along with personal communication. Indeed, we found Open Access to primary scientific literature deemed unlikely to have a significant impact on the extent of scientific policy advice, even though support for the concept and principles of Open Science among policymakers was high.
The case of Portugal is special in many ways, even if some of our findings do corroborate existing literature on information-seeking behaviours. What marks Portugal out is largely explained by the fact that policy-making is not considered a career, and many policy-makers are former academics who maintain close ties with academia. Our study also challenges the general notion of an “evidence-policy gap”, especially amongst our interview cohort of policy-makers who identify as academics. The idea that academics and policy-makers inhabit different worlds is therefore untenable as a general claim; in fact, the case of Portugal shows that where policymakers are recruited from within academia, the distinction of two groups and the diagnosis of a gap between those groups is markedly less plausible. Respondents’ familiarity with both worlds frequently renders the issue of uptake obsolete as policymakers with academic credentials do not have a problem reading or understanding academic literature.
In summary, we found scant evidence that Open Science significantly impacts research uptake. The study does, however, challenge the applicability of the “evidence-policy gap”-concept to certain national contexts. We saw strong support for the aims of Open Science and its principles of democratization of knowledge, mitigation of inequalities and societal impact in both our survey and interviews. However, this is not backed by a deep knowledge of the aims and principles of Open Science, except amongst interview respondents with links to academia. Our research shows limited potential for many elements of Open Science to directly impact research uptake. Rather, our findings seem to reinforce the importance of translation to render scientific outputs understandable to policy-makers. Further, interviewees were acutely aware that research and policymaking follow different (often conflicting) logics, and were also perceptive about the role, function, and limits of expertise in government. There is a need for more structured and continuous flows of scientific information for policy-makers. The Portuguese case, then, represents a new type of policy-active academic, namely one who moves between academia and policy- (or decision-) making roles (and sometimes back).
Networks of Engagement in Deliberative Policy-making: Expert Reflections on Barriers to Participation
So far, we have discussed results pertaining to research uptake more generally, with Portugal providing an interesting, counterintuitive case study. The final task of Work Package 5 sought to provide insights with respect to the question: Does Open Science in fact support scientific uptake by policy-makers, and are forms of cumulative advantage or disadvantage at play and impact participation in policy-making?
We started from the recognition that the intention of RRI is to reform the science-society relationship in terms of increased equity by bringing together public policy, societal relevance, and effective implementation. Researchers who conduct projects aligned with RRI principles and practices work with a broad range of societal actors, engaging them in participatory practices that seek to provide policymakers with knowledge. As such, these researchers are often gatekeepers as well as enablers for engagement in participatory research. This seems to beg the question: Which societal actors, both within and outside of academia, participate in Open Science and RRI research and policy-making? Which societal actors are excluded, and why? In response to these questions, we conducted a qualitative study composed of in-depth interviews and workshops with policy-active researchers whose research resonates with RRI practices. They were asked to participate in one of three workshops focused on three domains of interest: climate, agriculture and health, to discuss uptake of scientific research in the process of policy-making, improving equality in representation, access and impact in policy-making, as well as the potential impact of Open Science.
We identified several key factors that influence scientific policy advice: understanding on the part of researchers of the policy sphere in which they operate, congruence between research aims and policy goals, strategic development and maintenance of relationships based on trust and credibility, awareness of policy positions taken at certain international organizations (UN, WHO, OECD) as these serve to define the normative foundation for policy-making at national and sub-national levels, upstream engagement between researchers and policy-makers, and with civil society actors and impacted communities, fostering relationships between communities and their policy-makers, and cognitive (rather than physical) accessibility of research findings and outputs.
Participation in RRI-resonant research and policy-making is largely determined by the policy sphere in which a researcher works (representative, deliberative or participatory), and the research design and methods used to create the scientific knowledge. We identified three different approaches to research that largely overlap with the three policy spheres above: Within a traditional academic approach, it is primarily researchers and policy-makers who participate; in a multi-stakeholder approach, the range of actors includes various stakeholders selected for their relevance to the problem at hand, typically involving researchers, other experts, representatives from the business world, policy-makers and other civil servants, and representatives of CSOs and NGOs. With a strongly participatory approach, the range of actors is further broadened to include people who have historically been marginalized from processes of both scientific knowledge production and policy-making. Even so, some remain excluded from RRI-resonant research and policy-making, most notably researchers who are perceived as not credible or legitimate, due to inequalities related to race, gender, age, geopolitical position, as well as institutional affiliation and field, as well as researchers without adequate funding or institutional support for policy-oriented work. Likewise, the world’s most poor and vulnerable remain largely left out, despite best efforts of researchers practicing strongly participatory research, because these groups are difficult to reach due to the digital divide, language marginalization, and limited resources for this type of research. In summary, we found that the following groups influence public participation in policy-making:
Researchers, through their choice of research design and methods
Policy-makers, through their (un)willingness to engage with the various approaches to research that the science-policy interface implies
Research funders, by offering only limited support for participatory, policy-oriented research
Academic and scientific institutions, by maintaining norms that run counter to this aim and disincentivizing researchers from facilitating participation
So, while there are several key factors that influence scientific uptake by policy-makers, Open Science is not chief among them. Additionally, Open Science and RRI as they are currently practiced are not doing enough and are not yet widely enough adopted to have a significant impact on expanding equitable participation in scientific knowledge production and policy-making.
In the broader context of the ON-MERRIT project, the consolidated results of this work package contribute to a new understanding of the role of Open Science outputs in policy-making (they are quite limited). Our findings demonstrate that systems of inequality, including racism, sexism, ageism, classism and lingering colonialism manifest in academic and policy-making contexts in ways that advantage already privileged actors while further disadvantaging those already operating at a disadvantage. Our findings indicate that women researchers in particular are practitioners of multi-stakeholder and participatory research, and engaging in the science-policy interface in ways that reflect these approaches.
Our work suggests limited potential for many elements of Open Science to directly impact research uptake, with our survey confirming the literature in demonstrating the importance of policy briefs and personal connections in policy-makers’ information-seeking behaviours, and the secondary importance of direct engagement with scientific literature. We therefore find that Open Access is unlikely to have a significant impact on the general uptake of scientific resources amongst policy-makers, stressing the importance of translation for research uptake.
For the case of Portugal, our work challenges the general notion of the “evidence-policy gap”, especially amongst our interview cohort of policy-makers who also identify as academics. Finally, regarding the ON-MERRIT project’s interest in the issue of sustainable development and the societal challenges that are implicated in the UN SDGs, our findings offer insight into how research can be designed to effectively respond to pressing on-the-ground realities and how researchers (and societal actors) can interact with policy-makers to work collaboratively toward both immediate and longer-term solutions. Based on these findings, we offer the selected recommendations to researchers, funders, and academic and scientific institutional leaders that are presently the object of a co-creative process.