RRI: the Future of Science and Society in Europe

Excellent science, competitive industries and a better society are the ambitious aims of Horizon 2020, the new European framework programme for research and innovation. With a budget of €80 billion, Horizon 2020 sets out to solve some of the most challenging problems facing European society. An obvious question for VA and many others is ’how will European society be fully engaged and consulted in this process?’.

The answer appears to be RRI, Responsible Research and Innovation, a framework for including society in European research and innovation. A clear definition for RRI is hard to pin down. The concept is still evolving, but in essence RRI identifies the relationships between science and society necessary to make Horizon 2020 a success.

It is very clear that success depends on the cooperation of European society. This conviction was expressed at the beginning of a DG Research workshop on Responsible Research & Innovation in Europe held in May 2011.

“… After several years of research on the relation between science and society, we evidenced that we need to involve civil society very upstream to avoid misunderstanding and difficulties afterwards”.

–          Octavi Quintana, Director in Charge of the European Research Area

RRI however involves more than the engagement of civil society, encompassing business considerations, environmental concerns, impact assessments and future looks. A paper by the think-tank MATTER (published on the EU Horizon 2020 policy pages) lists the following five key aspects of RRI.

  • A deliberate focus on socially or environmentally beneficial results.
  • The continuous and consistent involvement of society in the research and innovation process.
  • Assessing social, ethical and environmental impacts alongside commercial and scientific considerations.
  • The use of oversight mechanisms to anticipate and manage problems and opportunities
  • Making sure openness and transparency are an integral component of research and innovation.

RRI is fast becoming a recognised term around Europe. In the UK, the funding body EPSRC is funding a project on Responsible Innovation within ICT. MVI, a project which started in 2008 in the Netherlands focuses on the social and ethical aspects of science and innovation. It has a budget of €12 million and is supported by six Dutch government ministries.  Industry has also been involved; in 2009 the chemical company BASF held a dialogue forum on nanotechnology with a wide range of stakeholders from consumer organisations, scientific institutes, trade unions and the church.

Horizon 2020 will be launched in 2014, but preparations are already underway. The final calls in the 7th Framework programme aim to the bridge the gap towards Horizon 2020, and a focus on RRI is anticipated in the next Science in Society Work Programme. Content is yet to be finalised, but preliminary discussions include “focusing on engaging societal actors in the research and innovation process, shaping governance for RRI” and “a training and dissemination toolkit for RRI”.

The signs all point to RRI replacing Science in Society as the main EU instrument for creating a science-society partnership. There are several concerns regarding this changeover. Science in Society has had its own specific work programme for many years; the philosophical trend in the field and one key aspect of RRI is for a more inclusive approach with cross-cutting actions. In principle a more integrated approach to actions currently addressed through the separate Science in Society programme is a welcome one. There is however a clear danger that instead of integration, Science and Society issues become diluted, perhaps disappearing altogether.

VA’s opinion of the current version of Horizon 2020 is that there are a number of concerning aspects and omissions. In particular:-

  • Dialogue between science and society is not very prominent, and despite some general comments about involving citizens, much in the current version focuses on one-way communication.
  • The current situation, where specific Science in Society actions are funded, should be continued in some form. As it stands, there will no longer be funding for research into Science in Society, specific events such as ESOF and Researchers’ Night, or activities to stimulate young people’s interest in science. There is a risk therefore that these extremely important areas will disappear from the European stage.
  •  RRI must be visible in all stages of the research processes if it is to be taken seriously. It must be a part of proposal preparation, proposal evaluation and in the evaluation of completed projects. At present, there is nothing to measure or evaluate any of these important stages.

In summary, the Horizon 2020 programme has room for development and improvement when it comes to RRI, public engagement and Science in Society. It is vital that improvements are made; the success of Horizon 2020 depends on a healthy relationship between society, science and innovation.

Read more about Horizon 2020 on the European Commission web-pages here.

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