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An abridged genealogy of the RRI concept

Responsible research and Innovation, or RRI, may not be well understood by some. Yet, what it means is: science policy should explicitly include society. It stems from the fact that resistance to technical progress has always existed, particularly when such new technology is disruptive. Those who, in the XIXth century, did not agree and contested the value of such progress were accused of adopting romantic attitudes, or of being irrational. Meanwhile, to those subscribing to the positivist philosophy, novel science and emerging techniques were associated with progress and welfare for human kind.

Authors such as Heidegger and Jacques Ellul have captured this dichotomy by claiming that technical progress might be rational, but not reasonable, as far as people are concerned. This debate seems never ending. Its very existence suggests that knowledge has to be mastered in itself, but it needs to remain connected to people and societies.

Today, RRI might be a renewed way to deal with the tension between those in favour and those who do not embrace progress. The RRI terminology has regained momentum during the preparation of the H2020 Program. Then, negotiations between the European Commission and the European Parliament there was a need to reconcile different proposals between the two bodies.

The Commission—a structure of technocrats—wanted to reduce RRI to Science in Society actions. They considered that society should adapt to progress under the pressure of innovation and industrial interests. By contrast, the Parliament considered that research and innovation finalities should be addressed in the perspective of society. Resulting from the co-decision process, RRI emerged as a compromise concept allowing agreement between the economic aspect of innovation and the societal aspect of research.

This working definition of RRI was echoed by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, in a message delivered at the conference Science in Dialogue – Towards a European Model for Responsible Research and Innovation held in Odense, Denmark, between the 23 and 25 April 2012. She said: “As the Europe 2020 Strategy makes clear, to overcome the current economic crisis we need to create a smarter, greener economy, where our prosperity will come from research and innovation. Science is the basis for a better future and the bedrock of a knowledge-based society and a healthy economy.”

 She then pointed out: “After ten years of action at EU level to develop and promote the role of science in society, at least one thing is very clear: we can only find the right answers to the challenges we face by involving as many stakeholders as possible in the research and innovation process. Research and innovation must respond to the needs and ambitions of society, reflect its values, and be responsible.”

The RRI concept has its roots in the two previous Framework programmes, six and seven. Ulrike Felt in an ESF report on Science in Society have gone one step further by establishing five steps in the evolution of the RRI concept. The first, Information politics and monitoring of citizens lasted from 1989 to present. The second, Raising Awareness of Science and Technology has been discussed since the late 1990s. The third, Dialogue, participation and governance, started in the early 2000s. The fourth, From Science and Society to Science in Society, started in 2007. Finally, the fifth, Innovation Union 2020: from knowledge to innovation, was initiated in the early stage of the 2020 programme in 2013 .

It is normal for Societies to react to the fast evolution of science and technology. It is also tempting for people to resist such progress. The question that needs to be addressed, however, is how to master it in today’s conditions? This would involve tackling both acceptance and reluctance towards R&D policies. If the question is simple, the answer might be more complex. We expect projects like RRI Tools to bring answers and to demonstrate how such tools are pertinent in the new Science in Society dialogue.

Jean-Pierre Alix

Representing project partner EuroScience in RRI Tools, based in Strasbourg, France

Contacts : jean-pierre.alix@euroscience.org, alexia.harambure@euroscience.org

Photocredit: mars_discovery_district on Flickr

 

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