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INPROFOOD project: Exploring new ways to establish dialogue and mutual learning

Posted: 27 October 2014 | INPROFOOD | No comments yet

In the debate on food and health, the INPROFOOD project, an EU-funded initiative, has explored new ways to establish dialogue and mutual learning between the scientific community and society, developing practical guidelines – in the form of a roadmap for action – for inclusive, sustainable research designs.

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A key challenge was to develop a new research paradigm, where stakeholder participation2 is actively sought and considered valuable to make research more robust and adapted to food dilemmas and ethical concerns. Opportunities and challenges to public participation in the research and innovation process, as well as themes in food and health identified by stakeholders as relevant, are highlighted here.

Food and health research in Europe Unhealthy lifestyles, including poor diets, are evidently linked to the high prevalence of obesity and chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It is therefore not a surprise that Europe has prioritised food and health as a societal challenge, allocating substantial financial resources to research programmes in this field. With its ‘Science in Society’ programme and framework for ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI), the European Commission aims to actively get all relevant stakeholders engaged in the research and innovation process, ensuring that science does not operate in isolation, but serves society at large. Together with researchers and the civil society, the industry is regarded a key stakeholder that should be involved in the development of research agendas from the very beginning.

Stakeholder engagement in food and health research There are a variety of reasons why involving society in research and innovation is crucial. These include ensuring that research is more democratic and accountable, increasing the legitimacy of ‘Science in Society’. Another reason is to improve the level of reflection of science and, thus, the societal utility, adaptability and the robustness of scientific knowledge. Finally, it is important to include the demand-side and user-side into science and this could, in turn, lead to increased global market success.

Although food and health may be of interest to a wide spectrum of stakeholders, such as consumers, researchers, industry, local/national policy makers and European bodies, it does not necessarily imply that they are all actively and efficiently participating in the process of research programming, or even aware of the opportunities to do so. A main finding from the multiple events organised by INPROFOOD was that there is indeed a wide interest of non-profit organisations, public entities and business actors to come together and debate on research programming for healthy and sustainable food.

Looking at the current situation, however, the investigation of the INPROFOOD consortium into the current processes, structures and actors involved in research programming revealed that in most countries examined3, stakeholder engagement is not required. Specific processes for research programming are not documented in great detail, and national governments often set thematic priorities for research. There are country differences; for instance in Italy, Greece and Scotland research priorities are influenced strongly by the European Commission and/or national governments, whereas in Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Spain and the UK there is a more responsive – researcher led – strategy defining the research programmes. The Netherlands and Denmark use a combination of both. Though, a responsive approach does not mean there was broad stakeholder input.

The involvement of industry in research funding and agenda setting is not uncommon, but depends on the country. The country analysis showed that the private sector is to a greater or lesser extent involved in food and health related research in the majority of the countries that were included; either in the form of public-private partnerships, or private sector organisations involved in the funding of the research. Civil society actors and the public more generally, on the other hand, are not often involved across the countries.

Challenges of stakeholder engagement in research programming

While stakeholder engagement in research programming is essential as per aforementioned reasons, it is also important to acknowledge some of the barriers or shortcomings of the tools that are used to involve stakeholders. Barriers include, for instance, ‘mistrust’ between stakeholders related to the diversity and polarity of stakeholders’ interests, and a lack of transparency. Furthermore, not all tools may be as effective in their capacity to deliver their objectives, or efficient to do so in a reasonable timeframe for reasonable resources.

One of INPROFOOD’s main activities was the organisation of 35 European Awareness Scenario Workshops in 13 countries, which brought together a broad range of stakeholders to develop shared visions of socially acceptable, trustworthy, and transparent conditions for developing health related innovations in the food area. Participants proposed topics for future research and made suggestions on how to improve research programming with regard to the decision-making on topics/areas/themes, project funding, quality criteria for funding, exploitation of results, and project evaluation. The core values for guiding these workshops were a high level of transparency (in the recruitment, conduct, etc.), inclusiveness and reproducibility, to aim for representative results.

Even though this was a very large, transnational stakeholder involvement activity applying scenario workshops, with high transparency, some of the shortcoming could not be eliminated, including the recruitment of a representative group of stakeholders. It is therefore essential to establish the purpose of stakeholder involvement; if the goal is decision-making, there may be issues with democratic legitimacy because the views expressed may not represent the interest of a group as a whole. If the goal is opening up governance, stakeholder involvement can contribute to it, if its weaknesses, in particular in respect to transparency and accountability, are closely scrutinised and tackled. Whatever the purpose, one should be cautious with generalisations on the basis of the outcomes of one or a few workshops.

European views on food and health research

A range of stakeholder engagement activities were conducted as part of the INPROFOOD project: both the European Awareness Scenario Workshops as well as the European Open Space Conference, where around 70 representatives from different stakeholder groups came together to discuss ‘how the future of research in food and health can be shaped’, sought to identify topics of particular concern and relevant for future research. PlayDecide games, a discussion game introducing policy making in a format specifically designed to learn discussing and exchanging experiences and knowledge, focused on adolescents; giving them an opportunity to identify possible strategies for development and change on a range of issues related to health policy.

Differences as well as similarities were found between stakeholder categories across countries. There was, for instance, agreement on the fact that ‘transparency’ is crucial for a fruitful cooperation and a ‘common vision’ among stakeholders is needed for a successful project. Some of the main topics or themes mentioned by the different stakeholder categories across countries were ‘focus on consumer awareness’ and the ‘social relevance of research’ (civil society organisations), ‘communication of science to the consumer’ and ‘transparency in cooperation’ (public sector), and ‘claims and regulations’ and ‘organic and local food production’ (industry). Though to be interpreted thoughtfully, the participatory methods conducted within the INPROFOOD have shown promising results with some of the food and health related challenges consistently surfacing across the different countries, independent of region and setting.

A roadmap for the future

The broader picture emerging from the INPROFOOD project is that stakeholder engagement in research programming is still in its infancy and is not part of the institutional culture in many countries. The specific outcomes from INPROFOOD show that stakeholders across Europe, call for actions to improve stakeholder involvement, both in terms of inclusiveness and legitimacy of such engagements. Rules and guiding principles to safeguard against favouritism, closed clubs, lobbying and conflict of interests should be set at all stages of research programming and agreed upon by all stakeholders involved. Building on the insights gained from the project’s activities, a roadmap for action to ensure broader stakeholder engagement in research programming has been developed was presented during the INPROFOOD final conference on 14 – 15 October 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The roadmap for action does not only promote public participation in food, nutrition and research agenda-setting, but also proposes a set of structural and organisational mechanisms to integrate a participatory dimension in research programming and recommends a set of mechanisms to enhance transparency, inclusiveness and accountability throughout the process.

References

  1. INPROFOOD towards inclusive research programming for sustainable food innovations received funding support from the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme (Grant agreement no. 289045) and involves 18 partners in 13 countries. This three year project (2011-2014) had a €4 million budget and was coordinated by the University of Hohenheim, Germany.
  2. Stakeholder participation or engagement refers to the process by which an organisation involves the people and organisations who may be affected by the decision it makes or can influence the implementation of its decision.
  3. The countries included in the analysis were Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

For further information about INPROFOOD, contact Raymond Gemen, Nutrition and Health Manager at EUFIC at: [email protected] or visit: www.inprofood.eu

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