The research we want, reflections in view of COVID-19

In 2011, in an expert group, the EU worked with scientists, philosophers, political scientists and economists to define the right framework for RRI. This led to the RRI concept: Responsible Research and Innovation. It was clear that in order to describe R&I as responsible, it did not suffice to comply with precaution and regulatory parsimony principles. In other words, responsibility cannot be understood solely according to the ethical principle of “do no harm” by analysing the possible consequences of research results or products.

Developing RRI involves going beyond the ethical principle of “do no harm” to combine it with the ethical – proactive – principle of seeking the “right impacts”. As von Schomberg, one of the leading exponents and proponents of RRI, points out, this system of governance leads all the actors involved in the R&I processes to “make each other mutually responsible with a view to the acceptability, sustainability and ethical desirability” of R&I processes, as well as marketable products. Therefore, the actors of RRI are no longer only scientists, but also citizens, companies, civil society, politicians and others.

Currently we are experiencing how COVID-19 has made it even clearer how important ethical principles are as signs of what is undesirable, but also as guidelines for the science and research we want. Of course, it has been made clear that it goes against our sense of justice that scientific advances do not reach everyone equally, regardless of a patient’s origin, gender or age. Social alarm has been caused by the knowledge that, when faced with a shortage of resources, the guideline of not providing health care resources to the elderly has been proposed, and even applied, by arguing that they had fewer chances of survival, which proves that R&I require an appropriate response from the reliability it generates in society.

Generating such confidence in our R&I systems requires producing a research atmosphere in which all present and future scenarios can be recognised, and from which we can help to minimise possible threats to decision making by providing viable alternatives. Furthermore, the integration of social science and humanism perspectives is relevant as a check, but also because it creates opportunities for dialogue and more reflective decision making that fall in line, as Ortega y Gasset would say, with the ideal of humanity of our time. Besides, this “anticipated governance” entails “democratic governance” that promotes an interaction of the various agents that integrate heterogeneous values, concerns, intentions and purposes. The underlying idea is that R&I have to be democratised and must engage the public to serve the public.

This European framework for RRI, therefore, becomes an EU requirement for the scientific community and society to work together. For the motivations, processes and results of science to respond to not only researchers’ expectations, values and thinking, but also to those of society.

This is why we can state that RRI is a concept that comes from the EU’s scientific legislators and institutions in a “top-down” process but, at the same time, the very concept of RRI and its practice also imply a “bottom-up” process. A double loop process in which existing experiences must be taken into account, and mutual learning from this reality must be encouraged.

There are many barriers to develop ethical systems of governance for R&I. The most pressing are: time, funding, reward systems, training of researchers and humanists to work together with laboratory science, expectations of scientific production and the moral division of labour. Some of these difficulties appear at the individual level, but others are institutional.

The ETHNA System Project is a consortium of ten partners and seven countries that work on the design and implementation of an ethics system to encourage the rooting of ethical practices in R&I in organisations that fund or conduct R&I. The goal is to foster ethical R&I using the double loop of “top-down” and “bottom-up” processes. The challenges currently facing research in the times of the COVID-19 require it. The ETHNA System attempts this by working at the institutional level through an integrity office to promote responsibility in R&I practices and their application, and to remain in permanent contact with society.

Elsa González-Esteban, Moral Philosophy Associate Professor (tenure) at the Universitat Jaume I (Spain) and ETHNA System Project Coordinator