Barriers to Civil Society Participation in EU-funded Security Research

Since the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7), which was in place between 2007 and 2013, security research has become an important part of EU-funded R&D efforts in Europe. 

Research conducted to pursue security objectives continued through Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe. The latter, Horizon Europe, is currently in place. This EU-funded security research, often referred to as the security research programme (SRP), follows a model that fosters public-private cooperation. This is aligned with the triple helix model of innovation, which refers to the interactions between academia, industry and government, and is designed to advance economic and social development. Indeed, most EU-funded projects have participants from these different areas. 

Yet, as the SRP unfolded throughout the years, it became clear that societal participation in security research was very scarce, despite civil society often being at the receiving end of the application of the technologies, procedures, and methodologies developed in the projects. In other words, while industry, research institutions, and governmental agencies were often participants in European projects, civil society were widely excluded from these processes. 

This not only affects the democratic legitimacy of the whole R&D environment in Europe, but it creates a scheme marked by a lack of transparency and contrary to the principles of open science. This is particularly problematic in the field of security, where many of the countermeasures to security “problems” must walk a fine line between different societal values. 

Moreover, and from a more utilitarian perspective, the lack of civil society involvement in security research also impacts the societal acceptance of security project outcomes. This may result in end-users being less likely to use products developed by security research. 

In recent years, a number of measures have been adopted to address some of these issues. This includes the adoption of the principles of Responsible Research and Innovation and the opening of research calls for proposals dealing with societal concerns and requiring civil society participation. As a result, there are dozens of CSOs that have participated in the SRP across many domains, including cybersecurity, disaster resilient societies, fighting crime and terrorism, and border management – TRANSCEND’s four pilot domains. Yet, we still don’t enough about who these CSOs are, in which countries they are based, and whether their participation is meaningful. The TRANSCEND project will contribute to bridging this knowledge gap. 

Learning from existing research 

In recent years, several EU projects have analysed which forms of civil society participation have been observed in security research, and what the barriers to societal participation are 

The ENGAGE2020 research project, for example, has identified some barriers to societal engagement. Even though the project does not look at societal engagement in the security domain specifically, but  generally in H2020, it has produced very relevant insights. 

First, a key barrier is lack of time and resources: a researcher’s limited time and resources can restrict engagement with civil society. Furthermore, weak connections between funding agencies and CSOs, and a lack of research funding for issues of particular societal concern, raise further barriers. 

Another key barrier is that CSOs lack the necessary training and skills. Not all societal actors have the skill and training to engage in security research, a process that can be very complicated, especially when considering that many aspects of security research are mediated through cutting-edge technology. 

A final key barrier is that there is an underdeveloped culture of engagement. This is largely because research institutions do not reward scientists for involving the people affected by their research. 

The SecurePART project found that CSOs want to be involved with security research and technology development regarding crisis management, counterterrorism and crime, infrastructure protection and border control. Analysing CSO involvement over six years revealed that CSOs do interact with security research: 69% of CSOs were directly involved and 31% indirectly. 

However, CSOs face multiple internal barriers for engagement. These include “staff structure or size of the CSO, CSOs mandates or priorities, inappropriate staff skills, poor involvement of the members and other collaborators and inappropriate plan of the activities to generate interest.” An external barrier is low compatibility between CSOs and security research programmes. The SRP has a highly technological focus, while the agenda of CSOs concern issues of minority and civil rights.  

According to the ENGAGE2020 report on future engagement, there is not a need for new methods, but rather to focus on the challenge of applying existing methods more effectively. For instance, CSOs aiming to engage in security research might look to other research areas with widespread engagement for inspiration. But future engagement could benefit from working across siloes; for example, by collaborating with engagement practitioners across different fields, and by having clearly defined processes before and after engagement. This would ensure that positive outcomes are not lost or forgotten further on in the research process. 

The ENGAGE2020 project also highlights that digital engagement generates new opportunities; however, it should not be used as the new norm since it cannot properly replace in-person conversations. Lastly, they highlight that “successful engagement is more than just methods, it is also a process of culture change”. To be truly effective, engagement must become an intrinsic part of research processes through policy changes. 

Learning from this research is key for the formation of effective strategies to further the participation of civil society in security research, and thus is key for the TRANSCEND project‘s work.

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Authors: Bruno Oliveira Martins and Lise Endregard Hemat, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)