Today’s societies face several challenges, ranging from healthy ageing to climate change and security, for which there are no straightforward solutions. These challenges are reflected in the European Commission’s seven Grand Challenges, which constitute the focus of European research policy. Throughout the research and innovation (R&I) landscape, people are working to meet these challenges.
Too often, however, R&I practices suffer from an implementation gap, lead to societal controversies or fail to answer societal needs.
Hence, it has increasingly been acknowledged that for R&I to continue to play a central role in meeting today’s challenges, a dialogue between science and society is required. Inclusive deliberation amongst a diversity of stakeholders from an early stage of science and technology development onwards, will contribute to more acceptable and sustainable societal outcomes. In order to achieve this, certain process requirements should be met, however. These include meaningful openness, anticipating possible futures, reflecting on societal values, and being open to change.
The EC has put forward the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) to help steer R&I in this direction. The RRI Tools project will develop and implement a Training and Dissemination Toolkit that must help policymakers, researchers, industries and innovators to render their practices responsible. The toolkit may comprise anything that assists parties involved in R&I to reconfigure their practices to meet the above-mentioned requirements. Tools can be anything from large-scale funding programmes to instruments that engage citizens or help to think through environmental and social impacts of R&I.
One of example of a tool already in use is the Dutch funding programme ‘MVI’ (Responsible Innovation). This programme is directed at the study of ethical and societal aspects of technological innovation trajectories that are deemed to be likely to have large impacts on individuals and societies. The program demands multidisciplinary research teams, public-private collaboration and some degree of stakeholder involvement. So far, already more than 30 research projects have been funded in this programme, totalling more than five million euros.
RRI is a profoundly new way of doing research and innovation.
But will it become more than a fashionable buzz-word and develop into a powerful policy instrument that transforms R&I systems? Some major challenges have to be addressed in order for it to live up to expectations. For example, most innovation takes place in the private sector, whereas most responsible research and innovation is—or will be—publicly funded.
How can private parties therefore willingly contribute to RRI?
The foresight that is crucial for RRI cannot change the fact that unforeseen effects of technologies are exactly that: unforeseen effects that are utterly unpredictable.
Moreover, however much stakeholder involvement one organises in R&I practices, there is no guarantee that communally held values will always be in harmony with whatever solutions for societal problems are technologically possible. In addition, the different contexts we find throughout Europe confront us with different challenges, and ask for different solutions.
Thus, the question is how we can have RRI tools do their work in practice. Our task is to develop a dynamic toolkit that has just enough structure to be powerful in realising inclusivity anticipation, reflection and adaptivity, at the same time remaining sensitive to local contexts, now and in the future.
Assistant professor of Science Communication, Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands, partner in RRI Tools
Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Missy Schmidt
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