Review of Research Councils UK Public Dialogues

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Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team

A review of public dialogues, consultations, and other public engagement exercises commissioned by the Research Councils from 2003 to 2012

Problems and Purpose

Research Councils UK (RCUK) public engagement with research strategy states that public engagement is an important element in maintaining public confidence in research, inspiring young people to pursue research careers, and ensuring that research decisions are informed by an awareness of relevant social and ethical issues. Within the broader public engagement strategy, public dialogue has a particularly important role to play in providing ‘social intelligence’ about the wider public, social and ethical dimensions of research strategy and governance. 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. 

The report draws lessons from public dialogues, consultations, and other public engagement exercises commissioned by the Research Councils since 2003. The purpose is to reflect on what has worked, in what ways dialogues have contributed to the goals of RCUK’s public engagement strategy, and what considerations should be given to designing the next phase of RCUK public dialogue support. The review was supported by the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre. [1]

Background History and Context

Since the 1994 National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology, UK Research Councils have been at the forefront of innovation in public dialogue on research. RCUK's commitment to public dialogue was further strengthened following the House of Lords 2000 report on Science in Society, which called for public dialogue to become a routine part of science and research.

From 2005, RCUK’s active participation in the UK Government’s Sciencewise public dialogue programme has led to major public dialogues on key emerging areas of research, from stem cell research to geoengineering. 

Public dialogue fits squarely within the first aim of RCUK’s broader public engagement strategy. [1]

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

Research Council UK (RCUK)

The strategic partnership of the UK's seven Research Councils

Involve are experts in public participation and are leading delivery of the project.

University of Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy 
Dr Robert Doubleday is contributing to project delivery.

Exeter University Business School
Dr Jack Stilgoe is contributing to the project delivery. [2]

Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

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Methods and Tools Used

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What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation 

The review drew lessons from public dialogues, consultations, and other public engagement exercises commissioned by the Research Councils since 2003. the RCUK reflected on what has worked, in what ways dialogues have contributed to the goals of RCUK’s public engagement strategy, and what considerations should be given to designing the next phase of RCUK public dialogue support.


The review finds that there is a consistent set of views and responses from public participants across the dialogue projects. The eight most common responses being: 

  1. Conditional support for the area of research being discussed;  
  2. Desire to see equitable distribution of both potential benefits and potential risks;  
  3. Business participation in research process is welcomed. However, society as a whole rather than business should set public research agendas;  
  4. Desire to see research focused on clearly articulated societal needs;  
  5. Preference for targeting incremental solutions to societal challenges;  
  6. Valuing ‘naturalness’ – that is scepticism of the value of high-tech solutions to complex social and environmental problems;  
  7. Focus on value for money (both in terms of the research and the envisaged applications of research); and  
  8. Anticipatory regulation of emerging technologies should be considered simultaneously with research and innovation of these technologies.  

There are two main reasons for the consistency with which these eight public responses emerge. The first is that the public dialogues all share a common set of overarching questions that explore public responses to challenge-led research. The second reason is that a major element of the discussion is about the conditions required for public support of particular research trajectories. What emerges are a set of public responses to the governance of research and innovation, and the public’s sense of current weaknesses of these governance arrangements – for example the limited opportunities for articulating the social purposes of research, the lack of anticipatory regulation, and the failure to consider equitable distribution. 

It is within the context of public attitudes to the governance of research and innovation that the theme of ‘naturalness’ emerges. It is important that this is not misinterpreted as a naive desire for a world without technology. Rather it can be understood as an expression of scepticism towards focusing on high-tech solutions for complex social and environmental problems, especially where these solutions depend on strong assumptions about our collective capacity to predict and control technological interventions. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The identification of this set of eight common themes has significant implications for Research Councils. When considering a possible new challenge-led research programme these eight themes should form the starting point for consideration of the potential value of engaging with the public as a stakeholder in the research. If these themes seem relevant, then the question becomes “is formal public dialogue the right route to address these public issues?” The eight themes can then inform the development of the dialogue including what questions should be asked, what range of experts will be required, what might the relevant ‘pathways to impact’ be. Of course, that these themes are relevant is a hypothesis that should be tested each time, but in cases where they do apply, forward planning on the basis of reflection on these themes should allow the dialogue to proceed further, faster, than if it had to ‘reinvent the wheel’. 

Reflection on the relevance of these eight themes might be relevant, even in cases where public dialogue is not pursued. For example, the social purpose to be addressed by the research could be articulated and tested through other forms of public engagement; anticipatory approaches to regulation could be explored through stakeholder workshops; and consideration of how benefits and risks might be distributed could be addressed through research. 

The review also finds that the public dialogues have had a positive impact on Research Council strategy and decision making. These impacts range variously from council-level organisation, programme strategy, and call design, to research proposals and projects. The dialogues have used different combinations of methods and activities, and the evaluations have found that in all the dialogues most or all of the activities were carried out to a high standard. However, when it comes to explaining the positive impact of the dialogue on the work of the Research Councils it is not the detailed choice of the dialogue method that is significant. Well designed and executed dialogue methods are necessary but insufficient to ensure dialogues make the sort of contribution to Research Councils envisaged by the RCUK public engagement strategy [1]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

There are five organisational factors that are critical to the dialogues’ successful contribution to the work of Research Councils. Successful public dialogues: 

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

See Also



[1] Doubleday, R and Teubner, R (2012) “Review of Research Councils UK Public Dialogues: Lessons from public dialogues commissioned by the RCUK”, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge, 27 July 2012

[2] Sciencewise (2017) “Review of Research Councils UK Public Dialogues” [ONLINE] Available at:

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