Ethics in participatory science and research

Why a symposium on ethics in science and participatory research?

There was once a time, when scientists worked to describe and explain the world, while claiming, if not an independence, at least a distance from its process. The relationship between science and society has changed over time. Today, it is no longer a question (if it ever were) of carrying out purely fundamental, disinterested research that is disconnected from any social, economical, environmental or political consideration. Some researchers even claim to be engaged in a kind of research that is largely oriented by the socio-political context. In this regard, a large and growing part of the scientific research is carried out for, with and even by society, through so-called participatory approaches.

Participatory sciences can be defined as "forms of scientific knowledge production in which non-scientific-professional actors, whether individuals or groups, participate actively and deliberately". (Houiller & Merilhou Goudard 2016). This definition includes a great diversity of practices that are distinguished, in particular, by their final goals, and by the level of involvement and responsibilities of professional research actors and "professional non-researchers" (Mezière et al. 2021) for whom it is difficult to find a unique terminology that would be entirely satisfying, as the range of types of participants is vast.

The professional production of scientific knowledge responds to a certain number of moral requirements (supposedly) shared by the scientific community, which essentially recognises three principles: autonomy, impartiality and neutrality. Science is autonomous in the sense that research strategies and methodological choices are independent of socio-political considerations. The statements it produces are established on the basis of methodological materialism: they are transparent, verifiable, and have an internal coherence which is not dependent on the socio-political context of their development. In this sense, science is impartial, which implies its neutrality: scientific statements do not carry any moral value; they are not prescriptive (Lecointre 2018, Coutellec 2015).

By definition, participatory research is carried out with, by and for society. Indeed, the opening up of scientific knowledge production beyond the historical professional circles invites us to consider if those ideals (autonomy, impartiality, neutrality) are achievable, or even desirable (Coutellec 2015).

Indeed, the objectives of participatory research are no longer solely defined by scientists. Research processes are also adapted to the participation of a non-professional public, whether in terms of the recognition of laypersons' knowledge, data collection tools or modes of knowledge diffusion. Both of these avenues of transformation challenge the ideal of the autonomy of science. Despite the safeguards deployed to guarantee the reliability of the data acquired or analysed by a heterogeneous public and the integrity of the knowledge produced from these data, the participation of a non-professional public increases the risk of an ideological orientation of science. If research is not independent and certain sensitivities are more represented than others by its actors, can the science produced be impartial? The question of the neutrality of the knowledge produced in a participatory manner inevitably follows: which knowledge is shared, retained and used? By whom and for what purpose?

Participatory science and research are shaping the nature of the knowledge that is produced and the way it might be used. They invite individuals - research professionals or not - and institutions to raise a set of questions at the heart of the science-society relationship. What does my participation involve and expose me to?  What are my responsibilities towards my partners and towards the knowledge I contribute to generate? What impact can this knowledge have, on whom and on what? What forms of recognition am I expecting? It is impossible to provide an a priori answer to these questions. The legal framework helps but does not go far enough. Sociology and philosophy must be involved in order to provide a relevant perspective to these questions, and thus guide individuals and institutions in their positioning with regard to participatory sciences and their transformative potential, as well as the scientist's work and the science-society relationship.

The conference follows the reflexion initiated in November 2021 by a group of 40 scientists gathered during participatory workshops organised in the framework of a research school dedicated to participatory science and research. There are two main objectives: 1/ to encourage participants to discuss the ethical issues raised by participatory research through testimonies and workshops and 2/ to provide a theoretical perspective on the specific nature of participatory research in terms of objects, approaches, results and the sharing of knowledge produced by the research. The conference is open to all researchers practicing participatory science, whatever their discipline.

To view the full programme: Programme

To register: Ethics in participatory science and research

Illustration : Meeting between the public and researchers on the INRAE stand at the Paris International Agricultural Show, 2020 | Photo credit : INRAE - Bertrand Nicolas