Several years ago, Peter McOwan from Queen Mary, University of London lead a research project which aimed to design ‘artificial companions’ that could perceive, remember and react to human users. The idea was that some people who lack human contact, such as the elderly, might benefit from interacting with socially aware robots. But there was one thing the researchers missed. When they trialled the companions, the users felt strongly that the designs should be modified. Robots should have the ability to forget as well as remember. As one user told Peter, friends forget, they don’t alway bring up everything you did in the past.
Science and innovation have wide-ranging effects on the lives of everyone, yet only a tiny group of people get to make important decisions about what is prioritised and how resources are used. For example, studies show that only 15 per cent of scientists come from working-class households. This lack of diversity narrows “the kinds of questions we ask, the kinds of problems we think worth tackling and the ways in which we go about doing our work,” argues Dr James Moore, from Goldsmiths, University of London.
This is a problem if it leads to technologies that don’t meet the needs of users. In the robotics example above, the UK is dealing with a loneliness epidemic and robots could be one small part of the answer to this problem. But if these technologies are not accepted by users or make the problem worse, an opportunity will have been lost.
And it’s not just about specific technologies, but also about broader priorities. The UK government, for example, has recently defined four ‘Grand Challenges’ for the country’s industrial strategy, which will inform at least some of the UK’s future spending on research and innovation. These areas, including mobility, clean growth, ageing and growing the machine learning and data-driven economy have potential to affect all our lives, so the ways in which these challenges end up being implemented is of crucial importance.
If we want innovations that address the needs of society, then we need a wider range of people to take part in discussing and debating innovation research and policy
How do we create opportunities and channels for dialogue and debate between the public and decision makers?
Citizens’ juries and public dialogues are tried and tested methods that allow professionals to come into contact with the public, and for a two way dialogue to take place. If done well, these methods can help influence funding streams, directly inform research strategies or ethical frameworks, help researchers to understanding public priorities in their area of work or contribute to wider public debate about a controversial technology or policy. But these methods tend to be very resource intensive: they need a lot of time to prepare, a lot of time commitment from professionals and others that you want to influence, and they usually cost a lot to organise.
On the communications side of public engagement, there has been an explosion of creative methods, from science busking to immersive theatre. We now need more experimentation and creative ideas when it comes to involving the public in discussing and debating the problems that innovation could address, funding priorities or the development of new technologies.
Today we are launching the Everyone Makes Innovation Policy programme, starting with a call for proposals for new methods of engaging the public in innovation policy. We are offering grants of up to £15,000 per proposal and the application deadline is the 9th of March.
What are the best ways to get the public to tell you their views on innovation research and policy? What materials and methods are best able to capture the public imagination? What methods can best influence the thinking of policymakers and other professionals?
If you have an idea for creative ways to engage the public with innovation research and policy, then we want to hear from you. In practice, there are a number of goals that your project could have:
Uncovering or reframing problems or needs that innovation could address
Identifying priorities or ‘challenges’ for innovation policy
Deciding how funds should be spent
Influencing the way new technologies are developed, used or regulated
Devising sets of principles to guide policymakers’ decisions
Monitoring and improving existing policy initiatives
We believe that innovation policy urgently needs to become more inclusive. We hope these grants will help show policymakers, funders and researchers the value of engaging the public as well as demonstrate a range of exciting ways this can be done.
The Everyone Makes Innovation Policy programme will fund ideas that demonstrate creative ways to engage the public in innovation research and policy. The deadline for applications is the 9th of March. Find out more and apply here.