The role of research and innovation in society is increasingly being questioned. In the past few decades, this trend has been exacerbated by controversies around the acceptability of some technologies, such as GMOs, synthetic biology or nanotechnologies. Or even by the decrease in young people choosing science and technological careers. In addition, the big societal challenges of today, such as climate change, health and demographic changes, the need for a clean and efficient energy or food security can only be tackled through transdisciplinary research approaches and in collaboration with different stakeholders.
To tackle such challenges, research and innovation scholars, policy makers, scientists and engineers, teachers, civil society organisations as well as industry and business representatives have started to work together on RRI to better incorporate societal values, needs and expectations in research and innovation. The trouble is that it is such a new field that there are no real established ways to go about implementing RRI. Hence, the project RRI Tools set out to identify various practices in the field of RRI as a means to recognise best practice and best tools and share them widely.
RRI Community of practice
The challenge is now to identify effective models to implement RRI, with the help of collaborative platforms between different actors in the field. To help identify promising case studies of success stories, the RRI Tools project is doing a pan-European consultation during the autumn of 2014. The consultation is currently performed through workshop organised by the project’s 19 hubs spread across the continent.
These workshops aim to consult different stakeholders on what RRI means to them and to identify potential challenges and opportunities for implementation. Subsequently, RRI Tools will start developing a toolkit with case studies, reading and training materials and guidelines with methodologies to implement and evaluate RRI.
The Toolkit will be constantly updated, and for that, the consortium working in RRI Tools relies to work together with all the stakeholders involved in RRI through a Community of Practice, which will be promoted through the project’s website and within a wide range of participatory workshops and training events.
Shared research decision
There are already many examples where the governance of science, technology and innovation is no longer restricted to its practitioners but is also shared with the members of society or with civil society organisations, who will ultimately be at the receiving end of discoveries.
For example, some believe that patient’s role in research should not be restricted to being objects of study and beneficiaries of research results. This is the opinion of scientists from the Athena Institute, at the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. They have developed a dialogue model for patients to be involved in setting up the health research agenda. In some cases, this approach has resulted in the identification of research areas, previously not considered as a priority.
In parallel, in Germany, an initiative called the Civil society platform for a change in research (zivilgesellschaftliche Plattform ForschungsWende) has built a platform of civil society organisations striving for more transparency in research and innovation (R&I). They are also looking for opportunities to take part in the agenda setting process at the national level and for more trans-disciplinary research and innovation.
Another example, which is taking place in many countries, whereby universities expose students to trainings on how to improve the research and innovation governance, in relation to society, through undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Some of the universities have strategically embedded this activity through the creation of so-called science shops, coordinated by the Living Knowledge Network. Their role is to address societal needs and challenges, to contribute to enrich European research agendas while at the same time developing students’ skills.
Shift in science policy and communication
This new RRI approach is bringing innovation in many different areas. In the field of science communication, for instance, practitioners move away from understanding and knowledge dissemination. Instead, they engage various parties concerned so that they engage in a reflexive and participatory dynamics before, during and after the research and innovation process. Activities tend to be geared towards achieving specific policy outcomes or towards influencing the direction of research and innovation.
In Europe, RRI is highly being promoted by the European Commission, with programmes such as the “Science with and for Society.” Some national governments are also promoting RRI, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC), in the UK, which has published a framework for RRI that the scientists they fund and the organisation they support are expected to follow.
Other research institutions, such as the Institute for Aids Research IrsiCaixa, where I work, are also moving towards RRI. We have established a Community Advisory Board, designed to maintain a periodic dialogue with different stakeholders who contribute to the institute’s research agenda. Another initiative, in collaboration with the Foundation La Caixa, offers an ambitious educational platform called Xplore Health. It is designed to involve secondary school pupils in the research and innovation system and to promote them becoming active citizens of the knowledge society.
We encourage you to join this RRI community by visiting the RRI Tools web site, to explore how it could benefit your field of work and to contribute to shape the path towards responsible research and innovation!
Head of Public Engagement on Health Research Unit at the Institute for Aids Research IrsiCaixa, Barcelona, Spain, RRI Tools deputy coordinator
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Brickdisplaycase.com
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