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Science won’t be responsible until citizens get more involved

RRI Tools project taught us to be more aware of current research practice before revisiting them

The RRI Tools project comes to an end as 2016 comes to a close. So what kind of new light has it shed on the Science in Society agenda? One goal was to document on a single website the available cooperative tools and Responsible Research and Innovation’s (RRI) best practices among 30 participating countries in Europe. Another objective was to develop training for science exhibitions and in science communication, in general.

The toolkit gathers more than 300 resources which are documented and constitutes a collection of good practices as well as practical tools already used in European countries. These are readily available for scientists or laboratories interested in enhancing the level of interaction with various actors in their environment. They can also bring greater legitimacy to their research activities. It has also facilitated the training of 3,000 stakeholders, a large community aware of RRI practices.

However, the findings have not reached unanimity. They demonstrate that the relationship between researchers and outside partners, including citizens, already exists in various fields. For example, in the UK, in physics, in environmental research and health sciences. However, they have yet to be adopted in other research fields. Moreover, it appears that the RRI cooperative model is embedded locally and based on traditions. As such, it has been developing in an uneven manner.

In this issue, we have asked RRI experts to take a step back and give their perspective on RRI and its future. They conclude on the importance of interweaving science in society, as pointed out by Elisabeth Guldbransen, innovation adviser at the Research Council of Norway. The Commission’s support for RRI invites us to address new challenges, in fields such as synthetic biology and geoengineering. It also encourages a shift in our positioning from ‘outreach’ of science towards society to ‘inreach’ of society towards science.

Similarly, Ulrike Felt, professor of science and technology studies and dean of the faculty of social sciences at the University of Vienna, Austria, underlines the need to focus on the positive goals of RRI. She also suggests examining the implications and tensions created by the new research order. The latter involves multidisciplinary research and new public management of research, where the means of measuring value are no longer in line with classical academic evaluation methods. New considerations appear on tacit ideas of science and evaluation practices and might lead to a reconsideration of the current research culture and practices. This probably explains the tensions and resistance towards RRI.

In parallel, Arie Rip, emeritus professor of philosophy of science and technology at the University of Twente, The Netherlands, wonders if the responsibility of the multi-level actors and their interaction has really been investigated. Particularly, he points out the need to revisit the traditional division of moral labour among scientists and citizens.

In contrast, Léo Coutellec, researcher in philosophy of sciences at Paris-Sud University, France, argues that RRI does not open a new mission for science. Indeed, by nature science is plural and implicated, more than just there to be applied. The responsibility associated with the practice of science are implied in all aspects of basic research and not just that of applications. This implied approach is exemplified by the Alzheimer’s disease research. Finding ways to cure the illness requires to examine all facets of the issue in an interactive way.

The RRI concept may or may not survive, as discussions related to the next European Framework Programme have started. No doubt, RRI provides a framework for examining the relationship between science and society and to experiment and analyse their joint evolution in an inclusive way, for the future.

What we have learnt from RRI Tools should be included in devising approaches including citizens’ perspective in future research projects.

Featured image credit: Peshkova via Shutterstock

Go back to the Special Issue: RRI Implementation

Jean-Pierre Alix

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