Managing a Post-Normal Science Project within Horizon 2020: Dream, Nightmare or Both?

Sandra Bukkens (project manager)

In this article, I briefly elaborate on what made MAGIC management a ‘unique’ experience.  

Probably one of the main characteristics of a post-normal science project is that there is not, and cannot be, a pre-determined plan. In post-normal science, the course of action is flexible and shaped by the stakeholder engagement. Policies and innovations of interest, relevant stakeholders, and engagement opportunities are unpredictable and fluid.  While the philosophy of post-normal science research closely adheres to the recommendation of the Commission for Responsible Research and Innovation, notably its emphasis on public engagement, it is incompatible with the Commission’s vision of a Grant Agreement, which resembles more of a five-year Soviet plan. This has been particularly problematic in MAGIC, where the public engagement was set to take place in the pre-analytic phase. How to co-create the research plan without having to continuously resort to amendments? Fortunately, there (still) is a human face behind the EC participant portal, which helped to resolve some of these problems!

The impacts strived for by the project—awareness, changes in mindset, attitude, and connectivity of policymakers—do not easily let themselves capture by numerical indicators, patents or other tangible outcomes. Especially not if this change is to take place within the Commission itself. Impacts strived for by MAGIC are largely imperceptible on the surface, but nonetheless of great significance. A quote from a retired EC policy officer, writing to the project coordinator (MG) after reading the MAGIC publication on policy legends [1], may illustrate this: “Now I understand a lot better how already then there must have been this “ancien régime syndrome” by which uncomfortable facts are silently and almost unconsciously filtered out to “avoid the unavoidable“ (called “unknown knowns” by MG)”. Note that there is only one key performance indicator (KPI) in Horizon 2020 for Responsible Research & Innovation, i.e. “institutional change”, but this KPI is normally assumed to measure changes everywhere else than within the EC directorates themselves. The inclusion of filters/criteria such as “policy related results” and “raise awareness and possibly influence policy” in the recently created Horizon2020 Results Platform is a promising step forward. Reflexive evaluation by stakeholders could be another solution.

Transdisciplinarity has been quite another test. MAGIC has shown that transdisciplinary research is easier said than done and the ambition of the consortium to jointly develop a novel transdisciplinary approach was a bold one. Indeed, it quickly became evident in the early stages of the project that many of the consortium partners did not quite fully realize what they had signed up for. Transdisciplinary research requires collaboration (which translates in time, patience and trust), an open mindset, and willingness to question business as usual and embark on something new and possibly risky. This involves making compromises and willingness to face uncertainty. In this sense, the project/consortium itself has served as a small-scale experiment for what it pretended to achieve at EC level. MAGIC has shown that genuine change takes time, but that eventually it can be done!

A post-normal science project does not offer optimal solutions nor best courses of action for policymaking. MAGIC’s quantitative story-telling works by exposing untenable assumptions in prevailing (‘politically correct’) narratives, thereby paving the way for the recognition of the relevance of alternative narratives for other social actors. Therefore, results produced by MAGIC, almost by definition, create uncomfortable knowledge for the establishment. This not only is at odds with the expectation from a H2020 project, but also creates a considerable challenge for project communication. MAGIC has seen significant discussion within the consortium regarding the handling of social media and project dissemination at times akin to censorship (”we cannot say that!”). With several beneficiaries in the MAGIC consortium also being involved in other research projects, which evidently demanded more politically correct messages, MAGIC’s communication with the outside has been under continuous scrutiny, not only from the outside, but also from within, notably in the early phases of the project when consortium members had yet to learn to trust each other and assimilate the spirit of post-normal science.

Looking back, now that the project is drawing to an end, I might be inclined to say that MAGIC has been a rewarding adventure, but I rather wait till we have concluded the final reporting …



[1] Giampietro M & Funtowicz SO (2020), 'From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy', Environmental Science & Policy: 109, 64–72.