On the second day of autumn, on 23 September, ETHNA System partners ZSI (Austria) and Harno (Estonia) organised a workshop for research and innovation funders on topic AI, Citizen Science & Ethics. The aim of the workshop was to explore potential fields of actions for research funding organisations (RFOs) and other key players in the R&I ecosystem. The seminar was attended by experts from the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Estonia and Ukraine.

The event kicked off with a keynote speech by Robert Gianni, research fellow at Maastricht University and investigator for Ethics and Responsible Research and Innovation at the BISS Institute. The first part of the workshop was organised in break-out group discussions, followed by a plenary session.

As RFOs play an important role in the research ecosystem, they have great potential to support and influence ethical and inclusive research. Traditionally, the responsibilities of RFOs have been:

  • Precise and unambiguous instructions/guidelines for applicants;
  • Clearly defined criteria and processes for assessing grant applications;
  • Declaration of interests (both for researchers and reviewers);
  • Monitoring funded grants;
  • Procedures – redress, in case of research misconduct.

AI, in its complexity and versatility, is a real challenge for funding organisations. The AI HLEG guidelines (2019) highlight three components of Trustworthy AI, which should be met throughout the system’s entire life cycle:

  • it should be lawful, complying with all applicable laws and regulations;
  • it should be ethical, ensuring adherence to ethical principles and values; and
  • It should be robust, both from a technical and social perspective, since, even with good intentions, AI systems can cause unintentional harm.

To this end, the participants discussed during the workshop sessions the most critical ethical issues requiring the attention of RFOs to help steer the development and application of AI in a manner beneficial to society; what might the responsibilities of national RFOs to ensure the uptake of ethical AI; and which concrete actions should be pursued to accomplish a more ethical governance for AI.

In summary, the following main recommendations emerged from the discussions:

  • During evaluation process an inter-sectoral dialogue is needed (involvement of experts from different fields and backgrounds);
  • RFO guidelines need to ensure high quality research: they should be user friendly, i.e. text should be understandable, precisely worded, and take into account the type of funding;
  • more efficient use of existing resources: ALTAI – The Assessment List on Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence
  • RFOs have a responsibility to make sure that the benefits of AI are shared fairly.

The partners in work package 3 have been busy preparing three guides for Higher Education Funding and Research Centers which plan to implement the ETHNA System. The three guides focus, respectively, on mapping stakeholders, assessing social needs to which research and innovation may respond and on holding workshops with stakeholders with deliberative methods to give them a say in RRI activities. The results have been obtained through literature research and stakeholder-inclusion activities and are based on the state-of-the-art findings from WP 2.
Stakeholder mappings help institutions get an overview of the actors with whom to cooperate when creating an ethical governance system. ETHNA System offers guidance to this end. The second deliverable guides institutions on how to consider societal needs, assuming that Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is the “on-going process of aligning research and innovation to the values, needs and expectations of society”, as defined in the Rome Declaration on Responsible Research and Innovation in Europe.
This dialogue with the civil society should, according to the theoretical foundation of the ETHNA System, be based on deliberative methods for which the third deliverable will provide guidance.
In February 2021, two workshops were held at which WP 3’s findings were discussed with the project partners, members from associated partner institutions and advisory board members as well as with stakeholders from the field of RRI. The results have also been presented and discussed at the ETHNA System workshop on “Research and innovation in and for and good society” in March 2021. The discussions with the workshop participants highlighted the importance of the ETHNA System and the relevance of its findings.   While answering to societal needs is crucial for RRI, several aspects have to be taken into account: Freedom of research should not be jeopardised by stakeholder inclusion. Also, excellence and ethics do not have to be opposed to one another, but can be achieved at the same time. Last but not least,the researchers’ reality has to be taken into account when expecting them to „do“ RRI. It must, for instance, be taught how to accomplish public engagement, to which end WP 3 analysed dos and don’ts of stakeholder mapping from the public participation community. Furthermore, taking into account ethics might be „uncomfortable“ – after all, one has to question oneself and one’s own research. At the same time, researchers are under pressure to publish, get financing and create outstanding results.

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Since the widely known Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration, published at the beginning of 2002, open access has become increasingly relevant and more and more present in academic debates, as well as in political decision-making spaces. The ideal that advocates for open access research not only attracts the support of researchers, but is also starting to be promoted by several administrative institutions. In this regard, the particularly well-known cOAlition Plan S was launched by the European Research Council along with national research funding agencies in twelve European countries. The main objective of said plan is to implement open access in all publicly funded research and publications.

The debate on open access has largely focused on one central aspect: its financing model. More specifically, the difficulty of delimitating the cost or finding a way for the information to reach the reader free of cost. The classic model of the publishing business has consisted of the reader subscribing to the journal to have access to scientific research. With open access, diverse and plural models are now emerging, and some of them propose to move from a model based on ‘publish-for-free and pay-to-read’ to one based on ‘pay-to-publish and read-for free’. That is, by paying for what is known as an article processing charge (APC). However, this is a model that can also be subject to difficulties such as differences in researchers’ resources or the difficulty of managing high APCs. Pay-to-publish (golden route) is not the only open access model, with others favouring alternative routes promoted by public funding of journals (diamond route) or making use of the self-archiving opportunities.

The debate regarding the models and possibilities of promoting open access is a complex one, but what remains clear is the central role that universities and research centres play in helping to make it a reality in the near future. They have a central responsibility to promote an understanding of its meaning and relevance and to inform the public of its various models. They can promote and encourage the use of institutional repositories to help disseminate their research and as well as provide recognition to those researchers who are sensitive to this issue. This is once again a matter where institutions – through a system of governance and an open access-friendly policy – and individuals can make a difference and can contribute to help the open access movement move forward.

Ramón Feenstra, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Sociology at the Universitat Jaume I of Castellón (Spain)

Rosana Sanahuja

Assistant Professor
Universitat Jaume I
Castelló de la Plana, Spain

It has been almost one year since you have been working with the consortium partners in the different corners of Europe. Please describe the experience of creating collaborations amongst such a wide variety of partners!

Our main role is to know what to request so that the knowledge that each partner already has will be of service to our common goal: to develop and implement the ETHNA System. In the kick-off meeting of the project that took place at the beginning of the year, it was clear that we all had very different professional profiles and backgrounds. But, from that day to the present, what it is to be highlighted is the evident will to offer self-knowledge to the committee. And do it all in spite of the challenges of Covid-19, which limited the contact and communication of telematic resources.

On the other side, working from different countries and institutions provides various perspectives and work methods, which enhances the process. Moreover, this is the first time we coordinate a European project of this nature and so far it has been a very interesting learning experience.

What do you consider the major milestones the project has achieved so far?

During these months we have made progress in every active work package, beginning with the one we lead from the UJI as coordinators: WP1. WP2, led by NTNU, has been progressed to evaluate the state of the RRI, especially in the governance field: to analyse good practices and conduct interviews to get further information concerning specific experiences. EUREC leads WP3 and is currently delving into the stakeholders map in order to be able to provide a guide of how to map their own stakeholders in R&D and Innovation to those who will come after, given that this is a project which seeks to last over time and have an impact beyond the implementations that will be made. In September, ZSI began WP4, the development of the conceptualisation of the ETHNA system, which is the first step of the WP and the resulting work of the previous WPs. Furthermore, transversally speaking, the communication led by BIOCOM in WP7 has been crucial throughout the project. Accordingly, the synergies obtained due to communicating through social media and the ETHNA System website should be noted.

How is ETHNA System collaborating with other EU projects on related topics?

As we mentioned, communication has favoured the establishment of synergies with different European projects. For instance, on January 13 and January 20, 2021, we will take part in an open online training on RRI and gender equality organised by the GEECCO project (Gender Equality in Engineering through Communication and Commitment). Likewise, we are planning on collaborating with the other projects on the programme “SwafS-05-2018-2019 – Grounding RRI practices in research and innovation funding and performing organisations” just like Co-Change (Co-Create Change in Research Funding and Performing) and RESBIOS (RESponsible research and innovation grounding practices in BIOSciencies). The role of the project’s associated partners is also noteworthy. Their collaboration and contributions are key to the development of the ETHNA System and the dissemination of its results. A project like this one must be open and collaborative. For that reason, we hope to broaden the collaboration throughout the project.  

What is the greatest challenge to date in the coordination of the ETHNA system project?

As coordinators, the main challenge is, as we mentioned at the beginning, working together with all the partners so that the knowledge that we each possess can be of service for the development and implementation of the ETHNA System. The ultimate purpose is to provide research centres, science parks and organisms that finance research with an ethical governance system of research and innovation.

The 21st century is a time of great progress and big changes in the fields of research and innovation. Scientific developments and technological applications uncover not only that their potentialities become real at a faster speed. They also show that the dizzying speed in which they do keeps us as a society from understanding them, participating and even getting close to their potential consequences in society as a whole, including economy, scientific developments and the professional careers of researchers.

R&D and Innovation spaces are highly complex and they are getting their scientific and technological progress to be in syntony with society. That is, getting them to practice science for society. It is a challenge which requires both a deep knowledge of their necessities and requests and managing the values that society identifies with minimums of justice. Occasionally, the results make research organisations and those who finance them feel pressured, which can lead to the imposition of frameworks that may cause a minor or major misconduct. For this very reason, nowadays it should be a moral imperative to favour R&D and Innovation spaces which are guaranteed to reflect on the best ethical standards, which promote them and think about social needs and how to add those to the process of research and innovation.

The ETHNA System proposal aims to face the challenge of institutionalising a system which manages ethics in research and innovation. To promote an ethical governance in research centres and research finance institutions. A constant surveillance in order to simultaneously prevent inadequate behaviour and promote excellency.

ETHNA System defines itself as a procedural system and one which manages the ethics of research and innovation. It aims to align the R&D and Innovation spaces in those organisations that implement it, along with the aspects (anticipation, inclusion/discussion, reflection and responsiveness) and key areas of RRI (research integrity, governance, gender equality, commitment of the public, scientific education and open access). In order to achieve said goal we encourage the coordination of procedures and existing resources (ethics committees, organisational ethical codes or guides of good research practice) and the institutionalisation of new ones (ethical committee of research, ethical line on research or progress indicators linked to RRI).

Said institutionalisation of ethics in the R&D and Innovation spaces is made from an ethical perspective of discursive and procedural governance. This conceptual framework requires an equal participation of everyone involved in R&D and Innovation activities. To achieve that, ETHNA system is restructured as an ETHNA Office which relies on four instruments (ethical code, ethical committee, ethical line and a system which supervises the RRI progress) in order to ensure there are areas to reflect, promote and conduct an R&D and Innovation from an ethical perspective.

The ETHNA Office may adopt the shape of an administrative structure with an ethical officer as a leader who coordinates the instruments and promotes the alignment of the existent resources by means of an ethical governance of the R&D and Innovation aligned to a RRI.

The fact that an organisation has an Ethical Office of R&D and Innovation does not guarantee that every action will be ethical. Nevertheless, having a formal administrative structure with a high-level executive position leading an ethical infrastructure would be very useful. The creation and maintenance of said structures will display a deep compromise regarding the promotion of ethical and responsible behaviour in research and innovation.

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

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

Marit Hovdal Moan

Researcher at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, NTNU

Your work group is currently working on assessing policies, practices and projects relevant for grounding RRI practices in R&I funding and performing organisations. How is the work progressing?

WP2 is led by NTNU, and is undertaken in collaboration with UJI and FECYT. We have agreed on a division of labour, where UJI and FECYT is in charge of articulating the ETHNA project’s conceptualisation of “RRI and “ethical governance”. They are also in charge of writing a literature review on RRI and ethical governance. NTNU, on its part, is mapping practices of RRI governance in the EU/EEA, focusing primarily on the meso and micro level (i.e. the institutional level of HEFRCs, and the level of RRI research projects). NTNU is also responsible for putting all the elements together in a coherent report in the end.

A draft version of the UJI/FECYT contribution was due by the end of June and has been completed, and the mapping of relevant RRI governance practices will be completed by mid-July.

The purpose of the mapping exercise is to gain an overview of the field of RRI governance in the EU/EEA, both to see whether there are examples of “good” or “promising” practices of RRI governance “out there”, and if so, whether the practices identified are worth picking up, as it were, and bringing into the ETHNA System.

The desk research phase will be complemented by RRI expert interviews. Although the interview phase is only due to start in August, we have already begun the process of identifying and interviewing a couple of RRI governance experts, notably Roger Strand, former chair of the EC expert group on “Indicators for promoting and monitoring Responsible Research and Innovation” (Strand et al., 2015).

What are the major findings or achievements so far?

In the process of mapping relevant RRI governance practices in the EU/EEA, it is imperative that we work with a set of criteria for promising RRI governance practices, which enable us to filter out “good” governance practices among these, to paraphrase the RRI Tools’ methodological approach to identifying good RRI practices (RRI Tools D1.4, p. 5). We have therefore constructed a theoretical framework for the evaluation of RRI governance practices, drawing on the literature on governance theorising “on the role of institutions in influencing behavior of actors” (Jan Kooiman, 1999: Social-Political Governance. Overview, reflections and design, in: Public Management an International Journal of Research and Theory, 1:1, 67-92, p.82).

Two main categories of factors have been singled out as crucial for affecting organisational change towards RRI: On the one hand, institutional factors – including the organisational culture (vision/mission), identity (organisational capacity to implement objectives and programmes), agency (challenges the organisation is oriented towards, as expressed for example in its KPIs), and action (experience in implementing activities connected to a vision). These institutional factors pertain to the structural aspects of governing interactions, and constitute the institutional framework within which R&I processes are embedded; that is, the structural conditions that affect the way in which R&I processes are organised and coordinated. These structural factors affect whether, and to what extent, RRI is integrated in R&I processes. Other EU-funded RRI projects concerned with the governance of RRI, such as Res-A-Gora, JERRI, RRI-Practice, and STARBIOS2, all point to similar institutional, or structural, factors as potential drivers and barriers for organisational change towards RRI.

On the other hand, there are factors at the actor level that also affect organisational change towards RRI; that is, the level of individuals acting within the framework of the institutions, and their interactions. This “intentional level of interactions” (Kooiman, ibid, p. 76) is an importance analytical focus of the EC expert group’s report. To be effective – that is “up to standards such as efficiency, legitimacy and fairness” – the governing of R&I processes “has to reflect the diverse, dynamic, and complex character” of the R&I sector, to paraphrase Kooiman’s conception of the governance of social political systems (Kooiman, ibid, p. 75). Echoing Kooiman’s view that complex systems need complex modes of governing, the European Commission’s expert group on “Indicators for promoting and monitoring Responsible Research and Innovation” argues that the network context of R&I processes requires a network model of governance (Strand et al., 2015, p. 18).

The concepts of “networks”, “self-governing networks” and “meta-governance” have proven particularly helpful in this context, as they seem to capture very well the diverse, complex and dynamic nature of R&I processes (network-based, self-governing), and the type of non-interventionist institutional framework  (meta-governance) that could fit these characteristics of R&I processes, so that the interactions in R&I networks can actually be influenced at the structural level, in the direction of RRI.

Kooiman has developed a set of normative criteria to evaluate meta-governance performance, which take into consideration the dynamic, diverse, complex characteristics of that which is governed; that is the networks of interactions at actor-level. Kooiman includes a criteria that echoes the criterion for “ethical governance” that informs ETHNA System, namely what Kooiman calls “fair representation”; a criterion which is thought to connect to the “complexity” of the networks at actor-level. Fair representation echoes ETHNA System’s criterion of multi-stakeholder governance, “which is based on the principle that governance models should be based on the equal participation of all actors involved and/or affected by (a given activity, for instance) research and innovation” (García-Marzá, 2017). Kooiman’s work thus seems a promising place to start when reflecting on criteria for the evaluation of RRI governance practices.

What are the key challenges you are facing in your work?

Deciding on relevant criteria for the evaluation of RRI governance practices has proven a more challenging task than expected. Finding concrete examples of RRI governance practices has also been difficult. With the exception perhaps of JERRI, Fit4RRI and RRI-Practice, previous EU-funded RRI projects focus on RRI practice at project level when mapping good RRI-practice.