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.