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)

Dietmar Lampert and Gábor Szüdi

Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI)

Question: Your work group is currently focused on designing the implementation plans for the ETHNA System. How is the work progressing?

Indeed, while it is true that the work is being led by us at ZSI, we could not have done it without our key partners because the conducted research has been a collaborative effort. Our goal was to revise and validate the results compiled in the first version of the ETHNA System concept, which we could only have achieved by sensibly involving the project partners. Each of them has contributed to at least one activity of the multi-stakeholder consultation, most of them to several activities where we strived to find out the most significant challenges and most important incentives, as well as good practices for the institutionalisation of RRI at different research-performing organisations commonly found in Europe.

We are nearly done with our work that we organised in three phases: at the outset of our work, we had started – together with our partners – with conducting 25 exploratory interviews to identify the central issues that quadruple helix actors throughout Europe experienced when institutionalising RRI or one of its key areas. The next phase was a series of workshops organised by selected project partners (Arc Fund, FECYT, NTNU, Harno, and us at ZSI) between July and September 2021 to discuss in-depth and enrich the findings of the interviews: four workshops were dedicated to research performers along four RRI key areas, i.e. ethics, gender equality, public engagement, and open science, and a special workshop was dedicated to research and innovation funders and the hot topic of AI and Ethics. The narrative evidence was then validated through a global-scale online survey where almost 900 researchers working on RRI shared their opinion on and experiences with RRI governance incentives, challenges, practices, and potential progress measures. In a final step, our work group is currently analysing the relevant gathered data to fine-tune the ETHNA System concept and provide guidance to the upcoming ETHNA Living Lab.

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

The four living lab implementation cases envisioned by ETHNA cover very different types of research-performing organisations as well as research-funding organisations, each of which has distinct needs and priorities towards the institutionalisation of RRI. In addition, RRI keys covered in our consultation process are truly diverse among themselves. Therefore, the sheer variety of the RRI issues on the one hand and the expectation to elaborate relevant and actionable options for the Living Labs one the other hand has proven to be the most challenging task of all. In the end, we as a project have to be modest in terms of what can be done in the Living Labs and what should even be attempted in the limited amount of time given in the context of the ETHNA project – institutionalisation takes time! That being said, there is no harvesting without planting seeds.

Question: Did something come up during the project work that you did not expect at the outset?

It was enlightening to see that, in terms of the institutionalisation of RRI or one of its key areas, most research-performing organisations face very similar challenges, irrespective of their kind, size, or country. Now, that does not mean that there is a common, ‘one-size-fit-all’ solution out there that is the answer to all their problems. On the contrary, institutional characteristics must be taken into account, from the organisational culture and values to the organisational structure, to the leadership support and support structures already in place, to the readiness and capabilities of their researchers, to bottom-up initiatives found in various departments or groups, to external influences.

We were also surprised to repeatedly hear how important it is to focus on processes, not so much – and certainly not solely – on outcomes. The saying that the journey is the reward seems especially true when it comes to RRI institutionalisation.

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)

The partners of work package 2 led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) are making headway on the report on the state-of the-art and best practices in the governance of research and innovation (R&I) in the area of RRI. In the ETHNA System project, the overarching quality criteria for good governance in the R&I sector are those of “ethical” and “effective”.

When searching for promising R&I governance practices examples, experts are a main source of insight. Marit Hovdal Moan, who is driving the work package, is using the snowballing method to come to a deep understanding of the subject matter: each interviewee is asked to suggest other experts of relevance, either to uncover best practices or gain a better understanding of a given practice.

We need tailor-made solutions

Interviews with experts also shed light on the hopes and concerns of potentially affected stakeholders. A central question that has come up repeatedly in the interviews conducted so far is: “How realistic is it to aim for an integration of all aspects of RRI in all types of research and innovation projects, regardless”. Most experts seem to agree that there cannot be a single one-size-fits-all solution for every application. Framework conditions will need to be taken into consideration. Different disciplines, even different projects, may have to be addressed individually. One take-home message from the interviews conducted so far seems to be that “we need to have a governance system that allows for differentiation”, Marit summarises.

Opportunity or obstacle?

Another issue that is also recurring in the interviews is that of the significance of the framework conditions within which research and innovation is taking place, at national and global level. A key word here is the incentive systems, which are based on the premise that competition is beneficial to research and innovation, and which drives researchers to compete for publications, funding, and students. The opinion of the interviewees is divided: Some think that the current incentive system is a major hurdle to integrating RRI in R&I activities. Others consider it an opportunity: The significance of competition in R&I activities could be used to bring momentum to the advance of RRI practices.

Picture: bizvector / Adobe Stock

Rosana Sanahuja

Assistant Professor
Universitat Jaume I
Castelló de la Plana, Spain

Question:
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!

Answer:
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.

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

Answer:
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.

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

Answer:
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.  

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

Answer:
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

While many project partners are currently busy with their work packages, the work package 7 “Communication and Dissemination” has already met some of its milestones. The communication team hit the ground running after the start of the project. In a first step, it was the designers’ task to create a logo – not an easy task in a project that is based on many abstract ideas! After much deliberation, we arrived at the current ETHNA System logo, which embodies many of the ideas the project encompasses.  

The pillars represent institution, education and governance, which is a vital part of the project. The various colours in the logo stand for the diversity of scientific research in addition to other values such as openness and participation. For those in the know, they are also reminiscent of the colour wheel of the Sustainable Development Goals. After all, ETHNA System aims to contribute to seven SDGs, for example SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and infrastructure), SDG 4 (Quality Education) and SDG 5 (Gender Equality). The colour blue has been chosen as it symbolises stability, order, truth, and intelligence. Also, blue is a colour that is universally liked.   Based on the logo, the project team has developed a number of communication materials and created a website that gives insight into the goals and details of the project. And – absolutely essential these days – we set up social media accounts in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Do you want to know what is next for ETHNA System? Follow us on your choice of site and let us know what you think!

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