Embedding Responsible Research and Innovation Practices into Our Research Activities.

“RRI can be understood as a shift in responsibility: the shift from thinking in terms of individualist and consequentialist notions of responsibility to thinking in terms of collective and distributed responsibility and processes”

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PIC. Dr. Catherine O Mahony & Dr. Ruth Hally, UCC

On Thursday January 12, 2017. Dr Ruth Hally and Dr Catherine O’Mahony, UCC researchers, facilitated a workshop for WIT staff on “How to Embed Responsible Research and Innovation  (RRI)  in teaching practices, assessment design and research approaches” at the WIT Cork Road Campus. Both Dr Hally and Dr O’Mahony are working on an EU project EnRRICH for Enhancing Responsible Research and Innovation through Curricula in Higher Education . This project aims to build capacity of students and staff in higher education to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that support the embedding of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in curricula, by responding to the research needs of society as expressed by civil society organisations (CSOs).

RRI is an umbrella term for the multi-threaded connections between Research and Innovation (R&I) activities and Society. It expresses the collective responsibility of people working in R&I to engage responsively with all societal actors (researchers, citizens, policy makers, and business) as stakeholders –  for example through public engagement, open access, gender equality, science education, ethics and governance– to align research and innovation processes, governance and outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society. RRI processes can be threaded through the full research project life cycles from agenda setting, to design, implementation and evaluation stages– leading to societal benefits from including knowledge and experience of real world ‘complexities’ in project activities. RRI emphasizes importance of ‘upstream’ inclusion of society in science and innovation to meet our most urgent grand societal challenges.

A key RRI goal for the Higher Education sector is to develop competencies and frameworks to embed RRI capacity within research and innovation processes and governance across all disciplines, and levels. This can be done by including Community Based Learning and Community Based Research in all disciplines directly into education principles and modules- from undergraduate courses through to postdoctoral research and innovation activity. Thus graduates, as well as those working directly in Research and Innovation, can be empowered with RRI knowledge to give proper consideration to ethical issues in service or, product design and development in the workplace, and to engage openly with people from diverse groups of society.

An appreciation of the necessity for RRI approaches has grown in response to public concern about controversial innovations emerging from fields such as robotics, genetic engineering, big data, automation and drones.  Focusing on health related innovations is particularly insightful when considering ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) for ICT research projects as is discussed by Bernd Carsten Stahl and Mark Coeckelbergh in their paper “Ethics of health care robotics: towards responsible research and and Innovation” .  For example, are intelligent, autonomous, and often also humanoid robots the best carers for the elderly, or sick children? The authors provide a useful overview of the ethical landscape in the development autonomous health technologies, including factors relating to value of human-to-human interaction, clarity of roles, employment competition with people, responsibilities and assigned tasks, trust, and if robots can have the ability to respond to emergent ethically complex situations. They indicate how RRI approaches can be particularly useful with ICT projects, to embed socially responsible ethics in innovation processes.

RRI is a strategically significant issue when seeking funding for research and innovation. Both Science Foundation Ireland and Innovation 2020  are committed to focus on research that addresses societal issues. And RRI is now a cross cutting issue in how Horizon 2020 project’s impacts are assessed. Evidence of integrating RRI tools and approaches in project processes is now essential for assessment of societal impacts of an innovation.

Interestingly, all of the top-ranking universities in the world share a characteristic of excellence in engagement of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Publically funded institutes have a societal obligation to be pro-active, anticipatory and responsive towards the economic, social and environmental impacts of their research in their immediate and wider environments.

Future and current researchers and technologists need to be equipped with RRI frameworks to support them in considering the possible future risks, and ethical dilemmas that may arise from their research and innovations. There are a number of EU projects which have provided pragmatic resources  to support research organisations increase capacity in this area – notably RRI Tools.  The large RRI Tools EU project (https://www.rri-tools.eu) provides a rich collection of frameworks, toolkits and resources to assist universities, institutes of technology, researchers and others to support making research activities RRI proficient. However RRI by its very nature cannot be just another tick-boxing exercise. It challenges all researchers to find ways to authentically and responsibly embed ethical and societal concerns in their work.

As a starting point RRI requires integrating into all R&I activities, processes for:
1.    Diversity & inclusion – including a wide range of different types of stakeholders in project conception and development.
2.    Anticipation & Reflection – taking steps within projects to consider diverse perspectives and conceive of the possible ethical issues and social, economic and environmental impacts related to project work and research activities.
3.    Openness & Transparency – being accountable and responsible through sharing information and results.
4.    Responsiveness & Adaptive Change – being able to adapt thoughts, processes, organisational structures and projects in response to insights, public values and emergent norms.

The EU have identified six initial key indicators for activating RRI policies within research projects and later added two further indicators for sustainability and social justice:
1.     Ethics
2.     Gender Equality
3.     Governance
4.     Open Access
5.     Public Engagement
6.     Science Education
7.     Sustainability
8.     Social Justice / Inclusion

In the Irish context, in June 2014, 20 leaders from higher education Irish institutions, including WIT, came together to publish the Campus Engage charter for Civic and Community Engagement  following on from the guideline in the National Strategy For Higher Education, 2030 which states that: “higher education institutions should have open engagement with their community and wider society and this should infuse every aspect of their mission“. Central to these ambitions is the creation of future scientists, researchers and innovators who enact responsible research and innovation practices that will address the needs of society.
In January 2017, a report was launched -’Engaged Research – Society & Higher Education: Working Together to Address Grand Societal Challenges‘  by Campus Engage (an initiative led by all Irish universities and Dublin Institute of Technology) with the support of the Irish Research Council (IRC). This report provides a stakeholder-informed and action oriented framework for engagement between civic and civil society, industry and professionals in research at higher education institutions. This framework along with EU developed RRI tools and processes provides a welcome support for TSSG and WIT researchers to guide our engagement with civic and social organisations, and other diverse stakeholders in ensuring that our research and innovation activities meet with wider societal needs, emergent norms and values.