Improve alignment of research and societal values in the EU

By SalM on July 8, 2020 in News

Recent research shows that while the EU promotes social and ethical values in research and innovation, such values are not well integrated in research policy or practice. Responsible research and innovation principles have been designed to enhance an inclusive and democratic approach to enabling research and innovation (R&I) to reflect the values, needs, and aspirations of society. Research from Wageningen University & Research (The Netherlands), Institute for Advanced Studies (Austria) and 18 partners however suggest a lack of integration of ethics and public engagement in European research projects.

Dr. Vincent Blok MBA, Philosophy of Technology and Responsible Innovation, Wageningen University

As new disruptive technologies like synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are accompanied with persistent and growing societal concerns about their social and ethical impacts, failing to take the social and ethical values in research and innovation into consideration systematically, may increase distrust in the democratic institutions we have in place to advance science and innovation investments in responsible ways, the researchers write in Science of this week.

EU: Six thematic domains of responsibility

On the political level, the EU has expressed in several documents the need for more ethical responsibility and better social embeddedness of research and innovation. To this end the European Commission has invested in six thematic domains of responsibility to better align research and societal values under the header of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI): public engagement, gender equality, science education and science literacy, open access, ethics and governance.

Translating policy into practices has fallen short

Our research evaluated the policy integration and implementation in Europe’s Eighth Framework Program for research and innovation, dubbed Horizon 2020, by applying a mixed-method approach. Based on desktop research, interviews, and case research, the team examined how policies on responsible research and innovation were translated into research and innovation practices funded by the EU. Findings suggest that the integration of responsibility in research and innovation practices has fallen short of stated EU political ambitions. While elements of responsible research and innovation are initially defined by policy makers in strategy documents, they wane in funding call requirements and are largely absent in evaluation criteria used in proposal assessments. In other words, political ambitions and societal expectations embedded in the responsibility principles are not adequately aligned with policy implementation or funding practice in the research instruments. This limits the ability of European institutions and researchers to direct research towards urgent needs and to fully anticipate the social consequences of doing research or innovating new products and services.

Solving inadequate alignment

Some of these problems can be resolved by the provision of adequate information, raising awareness and training of policy officers both in the EC and in the Member States. However, it also requires a clear application of responsibility in research and innovation policy efforts, manifested in funding calls, defining research goals, methods and outputs, as well as evaluation criteria used for assessing research proposals requiring funding. Moreover, it requires reflection on and balancing of various and often conflicting policy goals, such as economic value creation, scientific advancement, enabling open access to published research findings and responsibility in research and innovation.

Growing societal concerns: EU must affirm its leadership role

Integration of responsibility in research and innovation funding policy and governance must become a strategic concern of EU policy makers to promote social and ethical values and address pressing societal needs. As new disruptive technologies like synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are accompanied with persistent and growing societal concerns about their social and ethical impacts, a better integration of social and ethical values in research and innovation can enhance trust in the democratic institutions we have in place to advance science and innovation investments in responsible ways. By integrating responsibility in research and innovation the EU must affirm its role as a leader of ethically acceptable and societally robust and desirable research and innovation on the world stage. Otherwise, Europe undercuts its ability to fund and promote research that tackles societal challenges compatible with its values.

Publication

Novitzky, P., Bernstein, M.J., Blok, V.*, Braun, R., Chan, T.T., Lamers, L., Loeber, A., Meijer, I., Lindner, R., Griessler, E. (2020), “Improve alignment of research policy and societal values. The EU promotes Responsible Research and Innovation in principle, but the implementation leaves much to be desired”, Science 369(6499): 39-41  (https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.abb3415)

Acknowledgment

The results of this research originate from the EU funded project NewHoRRIzon (www.newhorrizon.eu, Project number 741402) which sets out to promote the implementation of RRI in European research. The NewHoRRIzon project, coordinated by the Institute for Advance Studies (Austria), brought together 20 research and research funding organizations as well as NGOs from across Europe and beyond.

Note for editors

For more information please contact:

  1. Dr. Peter Novitzky, Wageningen University (pnovitzky@gmail.com)(contact person for questions related to the data collection, methods and findings)
  2. Dr. Vincent Blok, Wageningen University (vincent.blok@wur.nl)(contact person for questions related to the scientific implications and policy implications in The Netherlands)
  3. Dr. Robert Braun, Institute for Advanced Studies (braun@ihs.ac.at) (contact person for questions related to scientific and policy implications in Austria and EU level)