Scientific Democracy in the European Research Area

Europe of Knowledge |

Lorna Ryan

In a recent paper, ‘Governance of EU research policy: Charting forms of scientific democracy in the European Research Area’ (Science and Public Policy 2014), I explore, prompted by Alan Irwin’s work (2001), how the ‘scientific citizen’ is constructed within current policy and decision making processes’.  The paper is based on my efforts to understand the dynamics of policy coordination and decision making arrangements in the ‘European Research Area’.


Governance, science communication and democracy

I had grappled for some time with the extensive, ever-growing, body of academic literature on governance and the ever-increasing outputs of the institutions of the EU, especially the European Commission, on the organisation of the European Research Area, especially on how pan-European research infrastructure consortia were to be organised. The questions posed were centred on whether the governance arrangements for research infrastructures, specifically those with European Research Infrastructure Consortium status could be categorised as new modes of governance?  Concurrently, I was exploring, for an entirely different purpose, the academic literature on science communication – asking questions like, what is it, who is involved in it and so on.


Within the first set of questions, a particular claim of the ‘new approach’ to governance, heralded by the White Paper on Governance (2001), was that it involved ‘opening up’ governance processes; in particular the idea that non-state actors were to be involved in the policy process and  in respect of the latter, a particular claim which was routinely evident in the academic and policy related literature was that everyone agrees on the importance of involving ‘the public’ in science communication practices. In addition, the Treaty of Lisbon provides for different forms of democracy and much discussion has taken place within the field of European Studies and in policy and activist circles about democratic deficits and associated legitimation crises.


Considering the three areas – governance, science communication practices and democracy and legitimacy, my starting point was to find, analytically, a ‘way into’ the governance arrangements in a specific segment of the European Research Area – the newly (2009) Regulation No 723 Community Legal Framework for a European Research Infrastructure Consortium and the consideration of what science communication practices were envisaged.  The first challenge was extracting a definition of governance. Often definitions are missing or are so general as to be unhelpful in identifying specific practices. I found that a definition offered in a medical sociology text was the most useful for my purposes – this was taken from Gray (2004) and his definition foregrounded the different authority relations between and functions of different actors within a governance ‘sphere’. Gray’s approach is productive because it allowed me to start to consider the different relations of authority and the different functions of actors within the broader ‘European Research Area’, for the specific case of ‘European Research Infrastructure Consortia’ (ERICs).


Roles for the citizen

ERICs are research infrastructures of pan-European relevance; specifically, the Regulation defines them as ‘facilities, resources and related services that are used by the scientific community to conduct top-level research in their respective field and covers major scientific equipment or sets of instruments; knowledge based resources such as collections, archives or structures for scientific information; enabling Information and Communications Technology-based infrastructures such as Grid, computing, software and communication, or any other entity of a unique nature essential to achieve excellence in research’ (article 2 Regulation No 723/2009). ERICs are required to grant effective access to researchers and also to ‘contribute to dissemination and optimisation of the results of activities in Community research, technological development and demonstration’ (Art 4, Regulation 723/2009).  Considering these statements in the context of the ‘science and society’ (now ‘science with and for society’) approach raised the question of how ‘the public’ were addressed within the governance arrangements of ERICs, described as key pillars of the European Research Area.


Drawing on Abels (2007) work on input and output legitimacy (which broadly allowed a consideration of participation in the process of governance or having decisions made by others in the interests of the public), I conclude that ‘[t]he principles informing the governance arrangements within which science communication practices take place are predicated on specific understandings of the nature of citizen participation and assign a distinct place for the citizen. The examples presented suggest that governance arrangements are framed by either deliberative democratic ideas in which input legitimacy is central or by representative democratic ideas in which output legitimacy is central. Crucially, the discursive construction of the ERA suggests a move within legitimacy claims from input to output legitimacy: for example ‘societal challenges’ are identified and resolved by scientists and experts in the interests of ‘the public’. Public involvement is on the basis of open access to data and to research infrastructures but this open access is not subject to critique in terms of the requirements needed to make sense of data, the basic scientific literacy required if citizens are to engage in amateur science in meaningful ways: the function of the public is limited. The key function of the citizen is to assess the accountability of decision-makers’ (Ryan 2014).


One conclusion of the paper is therefore that rather than simply, perhaps simplistically, seeing the mode of engagement with ‘the public’ as displaying features of the ‘deficit model’ of science communication, which positions ‘the public’ or citizen in a particular space within the science communication and governance arrangements of the European Research Area, the underlying principles of representative and participatory democracy inform (infuse) understandings of ‘good governance’ – legitimacy claims rest on these understandings.  Exploration of how ‘the scientific citizen’ is addressed within other areas of the European Research Area might prove interesting in confirming or disputing the argument advanced.


Dr. Lorna Ryan is in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at City University London.  She is writing in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not those of City University London. Her ongoing research interests include governance of EU research policy. Contact:



Abels, G. (2007) ‘Citizen involvement in public policy making: Does it improve democratic legitimacy and accountability? The case of pTA’,  Interdisciplinary Information Sciences ,13: 103-116.

Gray, A. (2004) ‘Governing medicine: An Introduction’, in Gray, A, and Harrison, S (eds) Governing Medicine: Theory and Practice,  Maidenhead: Open University Press

Irwin, A. (2001) ‘Constructing the scientific citizen: Science and democracy in the Biosciences’, Public Understanding of Science, 10: 1-18.

Ryan, L. (2014) ‘Governance of EU research policy: Charting forms of scientific democracy in the European Research Area’, Science and Public Policy, doi:10.1093/scipol/scu047.