“Motivating Institutions to Introduce RRI into their Strategies is a Major Challenge”

(February 20th, 2015) Bringing together scientists, citizens, policy makers and businesses to solve society’s complex problems is the goal of Responsible Research and Innovation, RRI. The abstract concept now gets more specific. We talked to RRI Tools co-ordinator, Ignasi López Verdeguer.



26 partners from all over Europe are working together to promote Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). They are developing and putting into practice a training and dissemination toolkit. The 3-year project RRI Tools started at the beginning of 2014 and is funded by a €6.9 Million Science in Society grant of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The consortium is coordinated by the “la Caixa” Banking Foundation headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. Lab Times talked to Ignasi López Verdeguer, coordinator of the RRI Tools project and Director of the Department of Science, La Caixa Foundation, about the challenges and the anticipated outcome of the project.

LT: How did the La Caixa Foundation become involved in RRI?

La Caixa Foundation has a long tradition of more than 100 years working for the public good. The main focus of the Foundation is the inclusion of under-protected communities but we also fund research with a focus on biomedical research and educational programmes. This, together with our interest in improving the relation of science with society (we opened the first interactive science museum in Spain – now CosmoCaixa - in 1981) made RRI an area of interest as soon as we got to know about it. Probably, the Science in Dialogue conference in Denmark in 2012 was the definitive milestone. There, we heard the former Danish Science minister claim: “We need political will to foster not only the best science of the world but the best science for the world.” One of the main rationales of RRI.


LT: Tell us a little bit on the history and background of the RRI Tools project?

RRI Tools comes from the interest of the Commission to foster Responsible Research and Innovation and its key issues (public engagement with science, gender equality, science education, open access and ethics) in Horizon2020. A group of 26 institutions including universities, research foundations, science museums and business representatives formed around the thought to strengthen the links between them, and to foster something which is a common objective for them: aligning the results and the processes of research and innovation to the needs and interests of society as a whole. RRI Tools kick-off meeting took place in Brussels in January 2014.


LT: What are the target groups of the RRI Tools project?

RRI has been developed in the academic and the European policy arena during the last decade. Now it is time that it reaches a broader audience and is practically applied. By definition, RRI is a systemic approach to the governance of R&I, so it has to tackle all the relevant stakeholder groups that are (or should be) involved in the system: from researchers in the public system and innovators in industry to policy makers and leaders and administrators of science, from civil society organisations to the education community and the media. One main focus though will be policy makers.


LT: What has been accomplished so far? 

More than 400 different institutions have participated in the first analysis phase through 27 workshops in 22 countries. We have brought together representatives from the different stakeholder groups to reflect on what would be the most appropriate shape of RRI. This knowledge is being gathered and analysed to design a useful toolkit for all. RRI is still quite an abstract concept; together we are trying to make it more practical so that, for example, research institutions can incorporate it in their strategy to respond better to societal needs or researchers can include its key aspects in H2020 applications to improve their “expected impact” section. 


LT: RRI covers a wide range of topics including open access, gender, ethics, public engagement and science education. How do you address this diversity and keep an appropriate level of detail? 

Those key issues are essential for a governance of research and innovation better aligned to the needs of society but RRI goes beyond them, as we explain in our first Policy Brief. RRI is as well about certain process requirements as inclusion, anticipation, reflexivity, responsiveness, etc. as it is about outcome requirements such as sustainable and ethically acceptable products or services. In the end, it is about helping to reinforce one of the main objectives that science has always had: bringing benefits to humanity and contributing to solve the grand societal challenges that we face. Researchers know better than anybody how to do this. We only modestly try to put together findings in different areas that might help them to wider reflect on their performance. From a practical point of view, RRI Tools has the mandate of giving an overall holistic view so to reach the detail of every key issue we need to collaborate with other EU-funded projects such as Responsible Industry, GenPort, Engage2020 or FOSTER.


LT: What has been your experience with different target groups so far?

First of all, it has been outstandingly rich. Building on their experience and contribution has been a pleasure and I would like to thank them for this. Some key findings such as the lack of existing collaborations between stakeholders is seen as an important obstacle. At the same time, the chance to establish new networks and partnerships is viewed as an important opportunity by all. One interesting thing is that there is a strong tendency for stakeholders to see the responsibility for RRI resting with stakeholders other than themselves: we want to be responsible but it is the work of others to do so, there is a lot to do!


LT: How do researchers from different scientific disciplines respond to RRI?

RRI might apply differently to different disciplines and sectors. It has to be helpful and not seen as an imposition or a constraint. Synthetic biology might need different approaches than particle physics. And there are sectors or disciplines that respond differently probably because the need to reflect on ethical and societal implications has traditionally been wider. The initial reaction of many is fear of increased bureaucracy and threat to the principle of scientific freedom. But many see in RRI new research opportunities by identifying new problems that have not been taken into consideration before or the appropriate way to overcome social controversies of new technologies.


LT: How about best practice RRI examples from non-European countries? Where stands Europe in comparison to other countries?

The selection of inspiring practices is underway and we might find them all over the world. For example, the support of “responsible development of nanotechnology” is one of the four major goals of The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in the U.S. and it is often shown as one example of reference. Global collaboration for mutual understanding is under way through different projects and meetings. Probably, nowhere else is such a strong cross-cutting political initiative to foster RRI as in Europe, through H2020.


LT: What are the major challenges for RRI in the future?

Recently, RRI has acquired some political boost since the Council of Competitiveness has endorsed the Rome Declaration and a group of private research foundations has launched a statement of support of RRI. But we still face many challenges: the general lack of knowledge of the concept, the lack of training material, etc. Probably the most important cultural challenge though is to motivate institutions to introduce RRI in their strategies and to put it into practice. Institutional change needs time and effort; we hope to contribute our share.

Interview: Ralf Schreck

Images: RRI Tools, Ignasi L. Verdeguer




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