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RRI: New buzzword or vision of modern science policy?

Multi-stakeholder dialogue is key to better acceptance and guidance of scientific progress

Science has the power to transform societies. It has the power to help tackle the challenges Europe is facing, like meeting its energy needs, enhancing the quality of the food it produces, maintaining a healthy population, preventing diseases and pandemics, or enhancing its democratic society as well as gender balance. To deliver on such challenges, should the scientific endeavour take place without any public debate? Conversely, should societies be required to master technical evolution provided by science?

These questions are not new. However, today, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) aims to reconcile the need for research to operate autonomously against a backdrop of society transformed by scientific discoveries and technical inventions. As such, RRI is a rather new presentation of an old concept, albeit not a trivial one.

The principle underpinning RRI is to establish a dialogue and negotiation between all those involved; the stakeholders, including the public. That way, these stakeholders can jointly assess the value of innovations stemming from research. As part of this process, RRI puts an emphasis on negotiating future solutions by introducing reflexive arguments rather than, as previously, only letting experts make the final decisions.

And this is a new approach!

We have recently witnessed a good example of how such reflexivity can be implemented. French scientists from INRA, the National Agricultural Research Institute, are collaborating with stakeholders–including association of wine growers and nature protection organisations–as part of their test for new solutions against plant diseases affecting vineyards. Some practical solutions have been implemented in Colmar, a town in the Alsace region, following the violent destruction by environmental activists of an entire experimental field of a genetically modified vine in 2010.

The solution involves setting up meetings for all stakeholders, to discuss the proposed scientific and technical innovations developed by INRA scientists. This replaces previous power struggles where the views of the strongest would–too often–prevail. It does not mean denying potential conflicts of interests. It just aims at looking for common solutions in a democratic manner where possible.

More educated than in the past, today’s citizens don’t believe ‘progress for the sake of progress’ is free of scrutiny. Citizens would rather have a say and prefer those innovations that best serve their own interests. Therefore, the connection between researchers and citizens has to become stronger than ever. This new approach is still new in science policy, and we have to imagine how it could be developed and carefully managed.

The Toolkit developed by the RRI Tools European research project aims at documenting available solutions to help implement RRI principles. These are used to connect those who feel they need to have a say about how science and technology progresses, such as educational institutions, industry and businesses, policy makers and media and civil society organisations.

The toolkit gives scientists and other stakeholders the necessary tools to find negotiated solutions in the case of science or innovation-related conflict. They may help tackle conflict, such as in the vine experimentation case above, which requires the participation of citizens and partners to engage.

In this context, the remit of science ethics has to be broadened, beyond the classical set of values outlined by Merton in The Normative Structure of Science. Instead, the new ethics combines existing and novel values, favouring common discussions among stakeholders pertaining the consequences and use of research findings.

Science should therefore evidently be developed only as a common good for humanity and mankind in the respect of nature. This may not appear as an entirely new conclusion. Simply, it may be a matter of raising fresh awareness that the power of science can only be unleashed amid considerable wisdom.

Featured image credit: Yuxuan Wang

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Jean-Pierre Alix

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