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Home > Focus > Public Engagement in Responsible Research and Innovation. A book by Ilse Marschalek.

Public Engagement in Responsible Research and Innovation. A book by Ilse Marschalek.

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 11 March 2020

A critical reflection from the practitioner's point of view.

Book Review


In the open access publication Public Engagement in Responsible Research and Innovation [2], Ilse Marschalek investigates the roles that a group of people that she names 'Public Participation Practitioners' play in the attempt to transform the relationship between science and society though the adoption of Responsible Research and Innovation practices. She argues that public engagement is seen as the key concept and basis for RRI, playing a role in the push towards participatory democracy within science, and as a result the concept plays a central role in the European Commission's drive towards responsibility.

Marschalek's main point is that practitioners not only have an under represented role in the RRI discussion, but that there is no generally accepted common naming or understanding of their role, even though they are primarily responsible for the engagement processes. Their role is fundamental, as a fruitful process needs a good host. In their role as hosts, practitioners have to take care of 'space and beauty' - meaning the form of the activity but also appreciation, respect and other important ethical requirements.

In the absence of a single definition and set of guidelines, practitioners resort to using a time-served battery of methodologies in order to engage the public, but that they themselves sometimes feel that they are to some extent working in the dark (my interpretation), without clear leadership or steering.

Problems addressed in the book include questions about who 'the public' might be, what is expected of them, what do they expect of 'science', individual and group power relationships (the difficulty of moving away from a deficit model), issues of convergence and conflict, and when and where (and even if) such practices should be carried out within a research project.

Practitioners are seen as playing an important but under represented role in RRI discussions, a problem that the author aims to address though this book.

Structural Overview of the Book

Chapter 1 offers a well-crafted overview of the development of RRI as an approach and policy promoted on an intra-national scale. The author uses several of the widest cited definitions to highlight the importance of self-reflection within the concept of RRI, before calling for an investigation into self-reflection within practitioners working within public engagement.

In Chapter 2 Marschalek formulates her primary question: 'What are the effects and the limitations within the practical implementation of the introduction of Responsible Research and Innovation and more specifically of Public Engagement as being one of its main constitutional requirements?' (p.21).
The question is based upon the pretense that the goal of RRI is a paradigm shift that would eventually lead to social change and that practitioners play an important but problematic role in driving the move towards these changes.

The chapter concludes with an introduction to the chosen methodology involving a grounded theory analysis based upon findings from participative evaluation workshops whose participants were all public participation practitioners.

Theoretical Part

Chapter 3 opens the theoretical section of the book with a description of changes seen in the relationship between science and society. The author describes this change as the 'democratization of science' in three phases:

Phase 1: Public understanding of science
Phase 2: From deficit to dialogue
Phase 3: Moving engagement upstream

This could be summarized as the shift from a deficit to participatory model (in phase 1-2) and then the movement of this dialogue upstream in the development process (phase 3).

Chapter 4 offers a succinct description of the RRI concept, before Chapter 5 positions public participation within the RRI concept and its democratic model. Chapter 6 analyses the concept and practicalities surrounding the idea and practicalities of participation, before chapter 7 describes the importance of reflexivity (on our own influence as practitioners on the process) and reflection (critique of the taken for granted) within RRI practice and its practitioners.

From this perspective 'RRI could thus be understood as a reflection process that is never complete' (p.80).

Chapter 8 offers an overview of public participation in research and innovation, describing the history of participation approaches and the aspirations of these practices, before raising a host of questions related to what public participation might be, who the public might be, motivations and timing and impact, pointing out that 'there are still only very rare empirical studies on impact available' (p.106).

After some fundamental questions about motives, assessment and practicalities, the chapter goes on to address practical considerations and recommendations for future public engagement activities on the basis of previous studies, concluding that there should be more public participation in the design of participation practices.

Empirical Part

The empirical section opens with a series of questions (p. 141) that very much represent the research aims and focus points described above:

Which framework conditions, methods and strategies exist to carry out Public Engagement processes in the field of research and innovation?
Which possibilities and limits do practitioners perceive in their work and how are they dealing with those?
What are their personal motivations to become engaged in a rather difficult field?
Which suggestions and ideas for improvements do they offer to address the main questions on current engagement practices?
Why could Public Engagement be aspired, what are advantages, benefits, impact?
When -- at which stage of the research process -- do practitioners perceive Public Engagement as most useful?
How could engagement processes in research look like?
What are main components?
What are decisive factors for success?
Who should get engaged?
What skills, attitudes or preconditions does it need?

The series of chapters that follow in this section describe the research process aiming at answering these questions. Chapter 9 describes the methodology, its general approach, limitations and justifications for applying participatory evaluation in assessing RRI principles (p.147). The group workshop format is explained alongside target group and focus, before a long section presenting workshop documentation that includes drawings, descriptions and photos of theatre improvisations, pot-it covered walls and stage discussions.

Workshop evaluation is followed by the data collection and analysis section that closes part 2.


Part 3 presents the empirical results. This is a long section that is broken into easy to understand subsections, each of which presents its findings using quotes from the workshops alongside broader findings drawn from the recorded data. Themes relating to the framework addressed include role ambiguity, the question of output versus impact, language used, task complexity and emotions occur within a description that holds reflexivity at its core.

The section closes with a short Conclusions section and a closing Consequences section that round the book off with a systematic overview.

Personal Opinion

This is a very interesting and enjoyable book. It is well written and although it shows its age a little (in terms of RI and RRI literature which is very fast moving) it offers a fine starting point for anyone interested in thinking about public participation from a critical perspective or those like myself working within RRI and who find themselves in the position of working in public participation work packages within projects.

It is easy to read, well laid out and does not fall into jargon use or complexity. The empirical section offers great insight, although I found it a little long and got a bit bogged down sometimes, but it remained interesting throughout and the findings perked the entire section up from within.

The author argues that reflexivity is required within RRI, not merely as an aim but also as a practice as it develops and widens its field of vision both philosophically and in concrete terms. A great deal of public participation has been carried out in the name of Horizon 2020 since this book was written, and personal experience tells me that the issues highlighted in this book may still be present today.

One particularly interesting factor is that this book represents a great resource and is available on free download! I recommend it to all of our readers, you can get your free copy through the link above.


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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://www.zsi.at/de/object/publication/4498
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Public Engagement in Responsible Research and Innovation. A book by Ilse Marschalek.
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