IMDEA’s views on Involving Citizens in the Circular Economy

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Javier Dufour is the head of the Systems Unit and Lorena Martinez is responsible for communication and image at IMDEA Energy in Spain. The research at this Madrid-based research centre focuses on determining the sustainability of any energy system. Sustainability in a broad sense, not only environmental, but also economic and social. Its aim is to develop new energy systems that are environmentally sustainable, but above all socially responsible, and the involvement of the public is essential in this respect. As Javier Dufour points out, we will not make progress if we do not all make progress, and to this end, citizen involvement models based on the ten principles declared by the European Citizen Science Association can be a fundamental driving force.

We spoke with them to find out how a research centre of high excellence approaches this process of social dialogue in science and technology, and how they propose citizen participation in scientific research processes, based on participation in projects related to the Circular Economy, such as the BIO3 network, whose objective is to promote the Urban Bioeconomy.

Manuel Gertrudix: What role should citizen science play in connecting society with scientific research?

Javier Dufour: Without a doubt, it is a fundamental role. Research cannot turn its back on society. It is essential to respond to society’s needs, especially on the part of those of us who work in the public sector. We need this process of intermediation, transparency and, above all, communication between the two spheres: society and researchers. But we also need to understand how we can involve citizens actively in the scientific process so that they can better understand, directly, the role we all play in scientific and technological development.

Research cannot turn its back on society. It is essential to respond to society’s needs, especially on the part of those of us who work in the public sector.

M.G: What are the main challenges we face, in the short and medium term, to develop the transition to a circular economy?

J.D.: The circular economy is more than recycling waste or reusing waste. It is a real transformation of the economy.  We have to see waste as a new raw material for which different processes compete, so it is a transformation of the concept of production, which affects the economy. But it is also a social transformation because we have to accept these by-products of waste-derived products as very valuable products. So, the more we get citizens involved, the more we are able to get them actively involved in any part of the process, the more we will be able to change and the faster we can achieve the transition to the circular economy.

M.G: Can promoting citizen science help drive the transition to a circular economy model? What are the keys to supporting this process through citizen involvement?

J.D.: As I was saying, it is undoubtedly an essential role, because society must be aware of and involved in the circular economy and its development. Researchers must be able to convey the advantages of accepting these by-products and involve them in the circular economy, offering mechanisms for them to participate in its different processes. This transmission of knowledge and concepts, and the necessary collaboration, are essential for the effective implementation of the circular economy in our society.

Society must be aware of and involved in the circular economy and its development.

M.G: How can this process be encouraged in schools? If you have carried out or are carrying out experiences of dissemination, popularisation or communication aimed at young people and schoolchildren, can you tell us something about these experiences? If not, do you think they should be promoted? In what way?

J.D.: Activities for children and young people are also very important and are clearly linked to the need we mentioned earlier to transfer to society the need to evolve towards a circular economy and involve them in scientific and technological processes. At IMDEA Energy we are very active in this transfer process. Every year we hold activities during European Researchers’ Night aimed at children between the ages of eight and eleven, where we tell them about our activities in a fun way. We propose a series of activities and games so that schoolchildren participate, understand the scientific concepts on which our research is based and understand how they can be part of this process of change, participating in different projects and actions in which their involvement is essential. 

We are also often involved on a personal basis. I, for example, often participate in activities in schools to show students my research and new energy developments. The aim is for these children to know what the reality will be when they reach adulthood and what options they have to get involved in research and technological development processes.

These are activities whose main objective is to involve students in the processes of scientific research, so that children and teenagers know not only their results but also the ways to participate and contribute to research.

Lorena Martínez: As Javier was saying, at IMDEA Energy we participate in several scientific culture activities within the framework of the Foundation madri+d of the Community of Madrid. For example, the Citizen Labs Network, Science Week, the European Researchers’ Night, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022, and  the Madrid is Science Fair, within the framework of Aula at IFEMA. These are activities whose main objective is to involve students in the processes of scientific research, so that children and teenagers know not only their results but also the ways to participate and contribute to research. This improves awareness and involvement, and generates attraction within the scientific sector, stimulating scientific vocations. I believe that two clear objectives are achieved: on the one hand, to generate this attraction for the professional and academic development of students; and, on the other hand, to raise social awareness to get involved in scientific and technological development, and to understand, from an early age, the relevance it has for progress in areas such as sustainability or the transition to the circular economy.

M.G: What role do you think science communication and popularisation should play to improve public support and commitment to the transition to a circular economy?

J.D.: Scientific communication is the basic tool for these concepts to reach society and be understood. Researchers sometimes do not know how to communicate well so that they reach society and can be easily understood by anyone. But we need to reach any citizen who is interested in this topic or who wants to know in a general way what the circular economy, the hydrogen economy or any other related concept is. Citizen involvement and participation means taking advantage of all the possibilities offered by scientific communication.

L.M.: Yes, that’s right, I think that science communication is fundamental nowadays. We live in a world in which what is not communicated practically does not exist, and sometimes science tends to be too focused on its own field and does not reach the general public in order to actively involve them. It is therefore crucial to make scientific developments in sustainability and green transition accessible. We need to make citizens, both young and old, aware of what is being done, of the relevance of scientific developments in their daily lives. But we also need to communicate to involve them, to make them see that they can be part of its development and to show them the ways to do it. We have to improve social awareness and generate links and synergies that make citizens fully aware of scientific research, but also involve them in the process of social transformation through science.

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