The multi-stakeholder consultation process to revise and validate the results of the ETHNA System concept recently concluded. Through the involvement of almost 900 external stakeholders from across the world, who are engaged in various RRI key areas, we managed to shed more light on the drivers, barriers and good practices of institutionalising responsible research and innovation in research-performing organisations (RPO).

Our findings indicate that the main barriers are still related to a relative lack of awareness and a misunderstanding about the principles, concepts, and practices of ethics and other RRI dimensions. Another major barrier at RPOs is the lack of top-level leadership support, as well as weak existing support structures and measures. Consequently, these barriers might manifest themselves in a lack of resources – in terms of time, human and financial resources – available to foster the incorporation of ethics and responsibility principles in research practices.

In practice, you often find that a combination of several barriers exists in an RPO, a complex situation that can only be tackled if there is a supportive organisational culture in place – or at least a mandate and regulatory framework – to take RRI principles into account when carrying out research. Institutionalising RRI can be fostered by the voluntary or mandatory adherence to national and international standards or normative rules.

Institutional leaders should understand the benefits of an ethics governance system to facilitate substantial improvements in terms of spreading RRI principles within their organisations. For this purpose, good practices such as the upcoming living lab experiments in the ETHNA project are of utmost importance. We need to showcase that positive changes are possible with proper planning and careful co-creation with each of the involved stakeholders.

As we have learnt from the consultation, institutionalising RRI takes time and gradual change processes have some important prerequisites. A mix of bottom-up and top-down approaches is desirable, but top leadership support is essential for initiating and scaling up initiatives. The development of an ethics governance system should not put another burden on the participating researchers whom you want ‘on board’ from the get-go. To ensure their motivation and understanding, continuous awareness-raising and meaningful training on various RRI principles and practices are needed, which might be fostered through engaged change ‘facilitators’ within organisations.

A main take-away of the whole consultation process was that, although similar challenges or even barriers exist across countries and organisations, they cannot be solved by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. We may understand this in the sense that the ‘journey is the reward itself’, meaning that the implementers may learn more from the processes initiated and facilitated than from the structures they establish.

By Dietmar Lampert and Gábor Szüdi, Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI)