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From RRI concept to toolkit — a defining project launch

Today, the trend is for research to adapt a more responsible approach vis-à-vis society and potential applications. This critical observation has led to the emergence of a movement called Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). The vision is to encourage more of the behind the scenes of research—involving choices of research orientation, in terms of funding, for example—to be made in a more transparent and accountable manner, involving the participation of the public and various stakeholders. Ultimately, the goal is to contribute largely and more closely to the large societal challenges of our time, be in environment, education, etc…

Initiatives that facilitate the ability to make research available for wider discussions and debates are the focus of increased attention, both at national and European Commission level. Providing practical solutions that can be shared across Europe, is precisely, what a newly launched research project, called RRI Tools, funded by the European 7th Framework Programme, is about. It aims to develop and use a training and dissemination toolkit on RRI. It has been designed and addressed by a large group of different stakeholders across the research and innovation value chain. And it will specifically focus on policy makers to significantly impact the future governance of research and innovation.

The project kick-off meeting took place in the Philanthropy House of the EFC in Brussels, on 20th and 21st January 2014. Discussions between the 60, or so, representatives from a broad scope of research institutions and science dissemination associations led to working definitions of ‘responsible’ and ‘tools’. Further discussions focused on the challenges ahead and discussed the particulars of the training activities. The participants also see the project as a means to increase their existing competences, while sharing the best practice from their territories with other partners.

Challenges ahead

Due to the large number of participants—26 partners—and the likely difference in pace between the different countries and institutions, the project represents a very complex challenge. Some participants are quite academic, while others are focused on education or on public dissemination of scientific knowledge and results.

As a European project, RRI Tools should be applicable to a variety of countries and regions. Social and even ethical aspects differ and might be of influence. In some regions, for example, animal experimentation may be a burning issue. Elsewhere, gender issues can be the main concern within the public debate. During the launch meeting, the participants made a list of both the burning and cold social and ethical topics in their own country. They, then, wrote down suggestions to handle the regional differences.

Differences may even exist about general definitions too. It is quite obvious that opinions differ about what is ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’. This can lead to some tension, as some stakeholders will start to form the position that they “are already working on a responsible and sustainable way.”

Another area of possible tension is the relation to free scientific research not directed by stakeholders’ needs. Other sources of stress could stem from the choice of funding, which should encompass what most stakeholders—society as a whole—consider a priority theme. Oncology is such a theme.

However, for many project partners, a main driver to participate in the project is the relevance of RRI-applications in the European funding scheme Horizon 2020. The latter defines some societal challenges including food security, smart, green and integrated transport and efficient energy. In particular, energy efficiency is a theme that illustrates regional differences leading to tensions. In the Netherlands, for example, the impact on privacy of smart meters and grids is key. By contrast, in many other countries, it is either a small issue or a non-existent one.

The RRI-participants also agreed on a common working definition of what constitutes a ‘tool.’ A tool might be a format and guideline for a public engagement activity. It could also be a project assessment tool that determines the RRI-quality of a proposed research project. Partners can now build up a toolkit that serves the social priorities the project aims to address and respect the specificities of each stakeholder group.

Forging the RRI tools

The challenge remains to gather a representative set of good RRI-practices and associated good-practice standards while allowing adaptation to local conditions across Europe. To gather a representative set of tools, the good-practice standards will embrace six key components: governance, public engagement, open-access, ethics, gender and education. The coordinators of the 19 project hubs—established to manage the activities of the 30 European Research Areas countries partnering in the project—will organise workshops aiming to gather and analyse such good-practice standards. T

The process to develop the toolkit aims to be collaborative and inclusive. The idea is to foster methods and channels of dialogue to increase creativity and shared ownership of the process. Ultimately, this project is expected to lead to a community of practice in RRI that will assure the use, evolution and enrichment of the toolkit. The toolkit will comprise practical, digital resources and guidelines for actions aimed at raising awareness, training, disseminating and implementing RRI.

Ensuring tools are used

To ensure that the tools developed under the project are used, the hubs will be responsible for training on the use of the toolkit throughout Europe. They will also be responsible for advocating policy makers at a national and regional level, with 120 meeting planned. Finally, they will be involved in disseminating the concept of RRI to a wide audience.

Prior to that, the project plan also makes provisions for the training of the trainers in using the toolkit. One major three-day workshop, due to be held in Brussels, will instruct future trainers through an immersion approach. The objective is to train 50 trainers. The training will avoid the traditional ‘teacher in front with listening audience’ approach. Instead, it will be based on case studies and operate in an interactive way.

RRI Tool is a very ambitious project, which will only help map out RRI capabilities across Europe, through the creation of a tookit. Once this toolkit is available, the project will instruct trainers, who are responsible for ensuring that the tools are used effectively by RRI stakeholders. Ultimately, the project aims to increase the participation of society and stakeholders in making relevant decisions concerning research and innovation.

The dissemination policy is also conceived as a test of the proposed prototype of Toolkit, which will be proposed to a more than 200 partners to get their feedback, and improve the final production of the Toolkit project.

The next there years will be employed to deliver on such promise!

Featured image credit: La Caixa Foundation

Go back to the Special Issue: Launch of Responsible Research and Innovation Toolkit

Sabine Louët

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