Some sceptics believe that the public is not qualified to participate in the decisions concerning which research gets funded. An initiative by EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, in the UK, indicates otherwise. Back in 2008, the council conducted a public dialogue, which had a clear impact on the award of research grants. The initiative involved deciding which nanotechnology research for healthcare from among six potential areas, was to be funded. The dialogue with the public provided clear priorities. It emerged that applications for the prevention and early diagnosis of disease were preferred over the first option favoured by the traditional peer-reviewed decision-making approach adopted by the EPSRC. This led to a more socially-robust and better decision-making process.
Similar approaches have since been adopted at European level. This is the case of the VOICES consultation process, which gathered opinions and ideas about urban waste from citizens across the EU. Should this be replicated to define future societal acceptable, sustainable and desirable research and innovation? We believe so.
But are European research and innovation systems and societies ready for such a change in the relation between science and society?
In our opinion, the new funding scheme Horizon 2020 will definitely set the framework in this direction. Already, some FP7 funded projects are paving the way in this direction. This is the case of a seven million euros research project, called RRI Tools, which encompasses 26 partners, divided among 19 hubs—such as the South Eastern European hub—that cover 30 countries. The project was launched on 20th and 21st January 2014, in Brussels. Its goal is to develop a set of tools to give training on how to implement Responsible Research and innovation (RRI) in Europe. Members of the consortium range from universities to science centres or private foundations.
The concept of RRI has been developed in the academic realm in the past decade. RRI has since been integrated by the European Commission into the new framework program. It is listed as one of Horizon2020’s specific objective, referred to as “Science with and for Society”. In parallel, it remains a cross-cutting issue to be implemented throughout the framework programme.
In a nutshell, RRI is a process where all societal actors—including researchers, citizens, policy makers, business and industry—work together during the research and innovation process. The goal is to align its outcomes to the values, needs and expectations of European society. RRI, according to the Commission’s definition, also account of key issues such as the public engagement of science, the relation between education and research and innovation, ethical and gender issues as well as open access.
The project RRI Tools will therefore develop an innovative and creative set of tools comprising practical digital resources and guidelines aimed at raising awareness, training, disseminating and implementing RRI. It will be addressed and designed by all the stakeholders of the research and innovation value chain.
In parallel, it will specifically focus on policy makers in order to impact significantly in the future governance of research and innovation. Tools will be based in collective reflection and built on existing good practices identified in RRI, such as the above-mentioned EPSRC initiative, or the council’s now formal statement of support towards Responsible Innovation; the another name of RRI adopted in the UK.
The Europe 2020 strategy states that the growth of our societies must be smart, through more effective investments in education, research and innovation. It also says that society must be sustainable, thanks to a decisive move towards a low-carbon economy. And that society has to be inclusive, with a strong emphasis on job creation and poverty reduction. We are confident that RRI Tools will contribute to the realisation of this strategy. In doing so, it will contribute to transform Research and Innovation in Europe into a process targeted at the grand challenges of our time—science for society—where deliberation and reflection are coupled with action–science with society.
RRI Tools Project Coordinator, Deputy Director of Science and Environment at “la Caixa” Foundation, a Spanish foundation whose mission is to contribute to the advancement of people and society. It supports, social welfare projects, the dissemination of culture and science, research and education.
Featured image credit: Ignasi López Verdeguer
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