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EC implementing RRI through institutional change

Horizon 2020 has as a notable ambition to address grand societal challenges. It fits in Europe’s strategy for jobs and growth, called Europe 2020, where research and innovation play a key role. In this context, several questions have arisen. How can we ensure that solutions to the societal challenges are based on research and innovation that will meet the needs of society? More importantly, how to make sure that they will not ultimately be rejected? Instead, is there a way to ensure that they will be adopted wilfully?

Lessons learned

Since 2000, the European Commission has been funding research to answer these questions. Informed by a number of evaluation studies, there are key lessons learned from this research. First, it has become clear that betting on technology acceptance by way of good marketing only is no longer a valid option. Second, fostering diversity in research and innovation is a must for achieving greater creativity and promoting better results. Third, early and continuous iterative engagement of society in research and innovation is essential to make innovation adequate and acceptable.

Based on these lessons, the EC has promoted an approach to research and innovation in which all societal actors—including researchers, citizens, policy makers, businesses, civil society organisations, etc.—work together during the whole process. The aim is to better align research and innovation outcomes with societal needs, values and aspirations. This is what is meant by Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

Such approach is deemed responsible because it fosters a co-creation process. Indeed, it encourages each stakeholder to care about the consequences for the other stakeholders, for society and for the environment. RRI directly relates to other initiatives often associated with the private sector, such as corporate social responsibility (CSR), responsible finance, socially responsible engineering or the Responsible Care initiative of the chemical industry.

Implementation of RRI in practice

The European Commission aims to implement RRI as a ‘package’ aiming to better engage society in research and innovation activities. As such, the RRI package focusses on supporting civil society engagement in research and innovation. It also encompasses activities, such as enabling easier access to scientific results to all. In addition, it supports a better uptake of the gender and ethics dimensions in research and innovation. And it aims at spreading good practices in formal and informal science education.

RRI is designed to be implemented as a cross-cutting issue in Horizon 2020, outlined in its article 14. This approach is designed to make RRI mainstream throughout Horizon 2020. In practice, this means that special attention has been paid to ensure that RRI elements will appear in relevant call topics within Horizon 2020. Specifically, internal screenings are planned to monitor the level of RRI embedding in the different work programmes. Criteria for evaluating the success of such approach include the integration of multi-actor and public engagement, gender, ethics, science education and open access.

Science with and for society

Furthermore, RRI is also supported in the Horizon 2020 regulation; namely in article 14.1(l) and in its Annex 1, Part V, under the heading: ‘Science with and for Society’ (SWAFS). Under this specific objective, projects and actions will notably seek to promote RRI not only on the level of the individual researcher or research project, but also more systemically, on the level of institutions and their practises, so that changes may have a broader and more lasting impact.

Projects funded under the ‘Science with and for Society’ objective can have as an explicit goal to contribute to institutional change. Contributions can, for example, cover the development and implementation of ‘CSR-like’ strategies, ethics boards, or gender action plans in the respective institutions forming project consortia. Projects can also focus on RRI institutional change at a regional, national or European level, to be promoted among all institutions active within a given field or set of countries. This could for example entail promoting the inclusion of RRI teaching in the curricula of scientific and engineering disciplines.

Projects can also contribute to fostering institutional change in many indirect ways. For example, the development and implementation of a code of conduct can be instrumental to drive change in the working practices of research institutions. So can the development and implementation of game-changing concepts such as ‘privacy by design’. Other changes in research practice, for example, collaboration with non-researchers—via open science, citizen science or trans-disciplinary science —or more inclusive merit assessment, can also indirectly contribute to change in how institutions operate and define their research and innovation governance.

Testing RRI assumptions

With this range of RRI actions, Horizon 2020 is a proper ‘test-bed’ for the feasibility and exchange of good practices with regard to RRI implementation. And this, throughout the European research and innovation system. On the basis of our experience gained, other RRI actions are to be considered beyond those directly linked to Horizon 2020.

Due to the horizontal nature of the RRI approach, it has a role to play in contributing to the definition of research and innovation policy more generally. At the European level, the European Research Area (ERA) is a relevant EU policy that can be complemented with RRI actions. ERA already includes actions on Open Access and gender equality. ERA stakeholders, such as LERU and CESAER,have indicated an interest in complementing ERA with RRI-oriented actions, for example with regard to public engagement and ethics.

Any such actions would naturally be based on close coordination with, and support from, research and innovation stakeholders and EU Member States. Some of them have already launched RRI-oriented actions. For example, funding bodies such as EPSRC, in the UK, Region Ile de France, in France, and NWO, in the Netherlands, have established dedicated frameworks and programmes for responsible innovation.

In the same way, important philanthropy organisations that fund research have embraced the RRI approach. For example, La Caixa Foundation, in Spain, is coordinating the EU funded project RRI Tools, to develop a set of tools that can be implemented to effectively realise RRI. A wealth of experience and ‘lessons learned’ will therefore become available in the coming years. And this, on local, national and European levels, in relation to a range of stakeholders and sectors. As such, RRI is likely to gain further momentum, with new insights and shared understanding acting as drivers towards a new phase in RRI policy evolution.

Gilles Laroche, Lino Paula, Philippe Galiay, Karen Fabbri

European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Innovation Union and European Research Area Directorate.

The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission.

Featured image credit: Pécub

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