RRI on the Line

For almost 20 years now, the idea of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has been an emerging priority of the European Research Arena. The new proposal for the budget framework that will follow Horizon2020 cuts the funds for specific RRI programs like NewHoRRIzon. Has the concept outlived itself?


The question how science, innovation and society relate to one another is not only of academic interest. It is key for our societies’ future. What are the promises but also limits of research and innovation to tackle existing and future global challenges? What potential risks and ethical dilemmas does research and innovation create? How can the public, which is “the” main stakeholder in research and innovation, be involved? Does research and innovation fully take into account the breadth of our societies in terms of diversity and gender? Who has access to data and findings of research that has been financed by tax payers? Almost each year we witness new “hot” research areas which raise these vital questions. Think about artificial intelligence, autonomous mobility, geoengineering, genome editing, nano-technology, robotics, to name a few.

The concept of RRI – and its predecessors ‑ has been around for some years now in academia and European research funding, yet the public recognition of it remains limited. According to EC policy Responsible Research and Innovation rests on six basic pillars: Public Engagement, Gender, Ethics, Science literacy and Science Education, Open Access and Governance. While the content of RRI is certainly implicitly present in the current budget proposal, the explicit concept and the strategy of better aligning research with society is missing. Robert Braun, Senior Researcher at IHS is concerned about the developments: “I believe that language plays an important role in creating a shared understanding. Dropping the dedicated program line is problematic, because there are methodologies being researched and best practices being put forward. A community of research and practice is being created through these research projects, and that’s a prerequisite for responsibility in research to prevail. Research on RRI is still much needed and required.” Alongside with the broader context of RRI, so-called SWAFS (Science with and for society) programs and their institutional backing have been eliminated as well in the new budget proposal. While they had been one of the priorities in the previous budget frameworks, they seem to have lost their importance - at least to the European Commission. The purpose of SWAF programs was to engage the broader public in the scientific process, or as it is stated on the EC-Website: “[Science with and for society] will explore and support citizen science in a broad sense, encouraging citizens and other stakeholders to participate in all stages of R&I. “

Neither the concept nor the content of RRI is well known or applied.

But what are the consequences of dropping the SWAF program lines? One could argue that the implementation of RRI contents in the new budget framework shows that RRI served its purpose and therefore the concept is not needed in a formal sense any more. Braun disagrees: “Our project NewHoRRIzon is just finishing its diagnoses phase on RRI being mainstreamed in Horizon2020 and it shows that neither the concept nor the content of RRI is well known or applied, even within European funding of research and innovation. Curiosity driven bottom-up research is still seen as something that should be a scientist-only affair - void of socio-ethical considerations or engagement with other stakeholders, let alone civil society.” The result of this process, he argues, is a growing tension between society and research that leads to phenomenon like fake news or post-truth culture. This is especially timely as we are living in the moment of a new industrial revolution – the emergence of algorithmic decision making from robotics to autonomous mobility. How our societies, our built and natural environment will look like, how inclusive, equitable and livable our societies will be in the future is being determined today. “This should not be up to researchers and innovators only”, Braun concludes.

The situation is even worse when it comes to innovation processes, where concepts like Open Innovation or public engagement are widely being seen skeptical at best. “Innovators and people doing research in innovation areas, especially in technology, still see their work as what´s called permission-less. It’s being said that creativity does not need permission to innovate and societal interaction in the early phases of research and innovation only limits creativity. This creates a hierarchy where industry is in the driver’s seat, which in turn creates a technology push culture - the impacts of which can be seen in multiple areas”, so Braun, who is currently doing research on new ways of mobility - an area that is also shaped by large technological transformations. People are degraded to ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ – their needs, wants and wellbeing are considered only by others. Autonomous mobility is a case in point: we still think and talk in terms of ‘cars’ – a one size fits all technology that is economically unviable, ecologically unsustainable and socially unequitable – instead of creating a more diverse mobility culture co-designed by interested stakeholders.

The European Commission is caught between industry and the research community pushing for doing more of the same just better and with more money, and societal actors wanting to get more involved, engaged and put more social control over the innovation process. This is seasoned with arguments that there is a growing distrust in science and an emergence of a post-truth culture. Some say science as we know it is part of the solution; others argue that research and innovation as we know it is rather the problem.

RRI is doing research on how to cut this Gordian knot by saving research and innovation and making it more democratic, inclusive and open. This would result in a research and innovation culture that extends its reach to different publics, becomes more democratic and re-defines scientific excellence beyond the self -determined ‘Republic of Science’ of scientists prescribed by Michael Polanyi in the nineteen sixties. This in turn would help better embed research and innovation into society; address the socio-ethical challenges that the new technologies might bring about as well as help address current challenges of the growing distance between society and science/research.

As a next step the current proposal of the budget framework will be voted upon by the European Parliament. “It would be great if the Austrian Presidency stepped up its efforts for a more inclusive scientific culture and save RRI in the new Framework Programme. We need evidenced based decisions to know what works and what does not. Keeping science and research to scientists and researchers, innovation to industry is not the solution. Closed, non-inclusive institutional ecosystems tend to fail”, Braun claims.

Scientists throughout Europe have voiced concerns about the proposed budget framework. First because of the general volume that remained far behind the expectations and recommendations - found for instance in the so-called Lamy report. And second because the involvement of society in the R&I process seems to play only a secondary role, as can be observed in the abolishment of SWAFS program lines. Braun sums up the necessity for a continuation of RRI research: “Science, research and innovation are not independent entities from society, but extremely close interwoven. People out there are willing and ready to offer their ideas and knowledge.” It will depend on the final budget framework whether those people will be involved in the R&I process or not.