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A riverfront homeowner sorts through his soggy belongings the day after the storm-swollen Red River flooded its banks.

Italian researcher Rodolfo Soncini-Sessa has worked with stakeholders to develop a water management strategy for the Red River delta in Vietnam, shown here after a 1996 flood. His work is part of the emerging Responsible Research and Innovation movement, which emphasizes breaking down the walls between scientists and society.


To be a responsible researcher, reach out and listen

Vietnam’s Red River is a lifeblood of the country’s economy. But managing its delta region—which is home to 17 million people; hosts the capital city Hanoi, as well as extensive industrial, agricultural, and navigational activities; and provides crucial environmental services—is also a source of conflict between local stakeholders, each with different needs and priorities.

Rodolfo Soncini-Sessa isn’t a local himself—he’s a professor of natural resources management a continent away, at the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy. But after he published a couple of books describing how he and his colleagues had helped address water management problems in Italy by working directly with the many people who could be affected, the Vietnamese government sought his help. Soncini-Sessa dove in, engaging ministries, the flood control agency, hydropower companies, the rice farmer league, and navigation companies in the design of a mathematical model of the river basin and simulation of various strategies to manage it.

Involving stakeholders in all aspects of a research project is complicated and time-consuming. But the advantage, Soncini-Sessa says, is that it gives everyone shared responsibility in both the process and outcome and is thus more likely to lead to a viable and equitable solution. In the case of the Red River project, that meant coming to a compromise—which the Vietnamese government is now working to implement. “A win-win solution is always the best solution if it exists,” Soncini-Sessa says, “but the only way of finding it is by looking for the points of view of each one of the stakeholders.”

Responsible research and innovation

There are many ways for researchers to step beyond the ivory tower as Soncini-Sessa did. Today, many scientists engage with the public, for example by promoting science education, conducting research with “citizen scientists,” or even working with members of affected communities to refine research questions. There has also been a growing scholarly debate about the ethical, legal, and social aspects of conducting research. Furthermore, the scientific community is grappling with internal issues, such as research ethics and lack of diversity, that affect how the public perceives research.

In 2013, the European Commission (EC) increased the momentum behind all of these topics by bringing them under a common policy framework as part of Horizon 2020 (H2020), the EC funding program for research and innovation that covers 2014 to 2020. Known as Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), the framework “brings this holistic view of different key issues in the complex relationship between science and society,” says Ignasi López Verdeguer, the director of the Department of Science and Research at “la Caixa” Banking Foundation in Spain and coordinator of RRI Tools, an EC-funded project that gathers information about what RRI is and how to implement it. RRI challenges scientists to pay more attention to what society has to tell them by taking a more inclusive, reflective, and anticipatory approach to their research. As the EC currently defines it, RRI is above all “an inclusive approach to research and innovation” that “aims to better align both the process and outcomes of [research and innovation] with the values, needs and expectations of European society.”

At stake, says Marina Jirotka, a professor of human-centered computing at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who has been involved in several U.K.- and EC-funded projects to foster RRI principles, could be the public trust in science and acceptance of scientific innovations. “Scientists and innovators are typically motivated to solve problems [and] contribute to progress and the social good,” Jirotka says. “RRI helps to fulfill this motivation by taking care to ask … society what sorts of innovation are actually desired, and to learn what the negative effects may be and how these might be managed.”

As Sebastian Pfotenhauer, an assistant professor of innovation research at the Munich Center for Technology in Society at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, sees it, RRI is above all “an opportunity for truly collective stewardship of our highly technologized future.” Until researchers embrace the idea that the public has “a legitimate reason to be heard as a set of voices that … live with the consequences of science and technology” and learn to navigate the interface between science and society in a mutually responsive way, researchers will continue to “be puzzled by the inevitable political controversies and political disputes surrounding new technologies” such as genetically modified organisms, Pfotenhauer says.

The EC is not alone in its efforts to promote socially responsible research. UNESCO highlighted the growing importance of RRI principles globally in its 2015 science report. Some national governments, funding bodies, research institutions, and scientific fields across Europe are promoting responsible research and innovation, and similar efforts extend beyond the continent. Given this momentum, “RRI might become more important in funding programmes … and researchers’ capacity to reflect [on] societal responsibility could—in the long run—become more important for scientific careers in academia and beyond,” writes the Research Platform for Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice, a network of scholars based at the University of Vienna, in a statement to Science Careers.

Yet RRI has also met some resistance from the scientific community. In particular, some researchers worry that it may pressure scientists against doing blue-sky research, López Verdeguer says. He argues that this is not the case, and he urges researchers to distinguish between RRI principles that may be more suited to applied disciplines, such as meeting societal needs by engaging stakeholders, and those that should be implemented across the board, such as maintaining research integrity and promoting gender equality. Another common misconception López Verdeguer hears is that engaging societal stakeholders means sacrificing academic freedom. RRI “is not about leaving the responsibility to the general public to decide on what you are going to research or not, but it’s having the capacity to listen to them when it’s necessary,” he clarifies.

Benefits and risks

Today, researchers stand to benefit in many ways from building RRI principles into their work. For one, 0.5% of the H2020 budget is earmarked to support researchers who fold RRI considerations into their grant proposals. Furthermore, as part of the €462 million Science with and for Society program within H2020, the EC is also funding a range of activities designed to establish governance frameworks and to help funders, institutions, and individual researchers start embracing and implementing RRI principles.

In the grander scheme of things, involving societal stakeholders in the research process helps ensure that your research will be valuable to society, says Alexander Lang, a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna who is involved in several EC-funded projects on RRI governance, monitoring, and education. “I don’t want to work on something for maybe 10 or 20 years and in the end recognize that it might have some very negative effects on others, or nobody wants to use it or even have it in society,” Lang says. There is also the personal satisfaction of knowing that, by adopting RRI, you are “contributing to making science more inclusive, more open, more reflective, and thus more robust,” López Verdeguer says.

Taking an RRI approach to your research can also help stimulate creativity and new ways of thinking and doing, says Erik Fisher, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University in Tempe who has studied how scientists and engineers can integrate broader societal considerations into their work through collaborations with social scientists. Working across disciplines or directly with societal stakeholders “can broaden problem framing and generate new research strategies,” explains Fisher, who also co-founded the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation. Finally, your project gains visibility as you identify and work with segments of society that your research may affect, López Verdeguer notes.

There are several barriers and challenges, however. In addition to still being a rather abstract concept, many researchers find RRI at odds with how research usually works, the members of the Vienna network write. For example, there is tension between researchers being expected to anticipate how their work will impact society “and the inherent uncertainties of ... research processes.” Many researchers would also argue that today’s academic research culture is not conducive to RRI, the network continues. “High levels of competition and secrecy, temporary contracts and time pressure are amongst the most often mentioned unfavorable conditions for responsible research,” they write, adding that “RRI is not (yet) sufficiently rewarded in how research is assessed.”

Soncini-Sessa has experienced some of these challenges himself in his work to resolve water management conflicts. He has been able to secure funding and publish, but working across disciplines has made it difficult for him to gain recognition from peers in more specialized fields, he says. On the other hand, he and his team earned an accolade for their Red River work when the project won a European Foundations Award for Responsible Research & Innovation last November.

Given the potential career challenges that adopting RRI can present, which may be particularly consequential for junior scientists, researchers should proceed with caution, especially if they lack institutional support or incentives. It can be particularly helpful if “RRI activities contribute to their core research missions or fulfill institutional expectations for public outreach, professional development, and community service,” Fisher says. Early-career scientists also need to keep sight of their other academic commitments, Jirotka advises. “As with all aspects of a research career, engaging in RRI is about balance and it should be undertaken in a way … commensurate with one’s seniority and experience. It also should be a shared responsibility, and individual researchers should not feel burdened to take it on all by themselves,” she says.

Getting involved

Broad institutional implementation of RRI is still in its early days, but individual researchers can start getting involved on a day-to-day basis in many ways. A first port of call is RRI Tools, which lists examples of inspiring practices and offers guidelines on how to embed RRI in academic activities. Those looking for more formal training may be able to find courses related to at least some RRI elements at their institutions, and a small number of more holistic training programs are also becoming available across Europe (see box).

A hands-on approach can also help researchers develop RRI skills, says Fisher, who developed training videos about integrating social sciences perspectives into research. “Young scientists should … try the waters and experiment with RRI-related activities,” he advises. “Seek out other scientists and engineers who have experience with RRI, especially interdisciplinary collaborations with social scientists and humanities scholars, both in your own organizations and elsewhere.”

Jirotka suggests that scientists can hone their sensitivity to societal concerns by reflecting on how science is discussed in the media and becoming familiar with the academic literature on the relationship between technology and social change. Another approach, she adds, is discussing your research with lay people, either informally or in public venues, “making this into a dialogue so that you listen to others’ perspectives and concerns.” Such discussions can help researchers start “asking questions and considering possibilities that are enabled by their research, both negative and positive, perhaps creating a space in team meetings and other venues where these can be discussed, and passing issues and concerns on to the appropriate senior colleagues or funders,” Jirotka says.

Not all aspects of RRI are suited to all fields, and the future of RRI as a policy concept and as a concrete set of academic practices remains to be seen. But by encouraging scientists to reach out and listen to the public, RRI offers some incentives and rewards that may be difficult to find otherwise. As Soncini-Sessa says of his Vietnam project and others, “this is an emotional moment, when you perceive that there is something that can be an advantage for all.” Ultimately, taking an RRI approach to research “is the only way of solving the problems we have in the world.”

Emerging RRI training programs in Europe

  • The Munich Center for Technology in Society in Germany is training science and business students to see that asking societal or political questions is an integral part of their job.
  • Starting in fall 2017, the INPhINIT doctoral fellowship program sponsored by “la Caixa” Banking Foundation in Spain will offer training in cross-disciplinary skills, including key aspects of RRI.
  • Also starting in fall 2017—as part of the EC-funded Higher Education Institutions & Responsible Research and Innovation project led by the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona—UPF, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, the University of Bergen in Norway, Aarhus University in Denmark, and the University of Split in Croatia will run a small pilot of the RRI courses they are developing, and course materials will be made freely available to other interested higher education institutions.
  • The Trans Global Health doctoral program—jointly launched by the University of Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Université de Bordeaux in France, the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp in Belgium, and the University of Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain—offers training to work across the biomedical, clinical, social, and behavioral sciences and to engage societal actors.

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