Scientists ‘need responsible research evaluations’

Scientists should ensure their research is ethically acceptable to society Copyright: Shutterstock

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[DUBLIN] Scientists should start evaluating the societal as well as economic implications of new research and innovations at the outset of their project, a session at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, Ireland, heard last week (13 July).

The event’s panellists explained that the concept of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI) was integral to these evaluations, and could lead to a more socially sensitive and inclusive research, especially on new technologies.

They explained that RRI has four main characteristics — it should: anticipate the intended and unintended social consequences of research; be inclusive by opening up new perspectives from other disciplines; be reflexive by examining the assumptions underlying a research idea; and be responsive to issues linked to research.

"It is early days for [the concept of] responsible innovation," said Jack Stilgoe, a senior research fellow at the University of Exeter Business School in the United Kingdom. RRI has emerged over the last few years, and some European research centres are beginning to implement it during the design and evaluation of research proposal stages, Stilgoe told SciDev.Net.

René von Schomberg, a scientific policy officer at the European Commission‘s directorate general of research, governance and ethics unit, said that research and innovation "should not be evaluated only in terms of economy and markets … This [market] model, from the perspective of responsible research and innovation, is problematic."

Instead, RRI is a transparent, interactive process by which society and innovators can mutually respond to each others’ views. The resulting research or technology is sustainable and ethically acceptable to society, von Schomberg said.

He added that research and innovation processes should address issues related to codes of conduct, market accountability, and responsible public debate responses.

Stilgoe proposed that scientists could use a set of criteria to reflect on the societal implications of research, including safety, compliance, application, incorporating public and stakeholders’ views, and communication.

David Guston, director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, United States, said the shift in focus towards responsible research has emerged in light of new and emerging technologies with newer contexts, the changing concepts of responsibility of scientists, and because "current capacities [in enforcing ethics] are not fully satisfying, [either] normatively or practically".

Jeroen van der Hoven, a professor of moral philosophy at Delft University in the Netherlands, said that scientists should try to design their research objectives in a broader context, which includes aspects of social, regulatory and institutional innovation, draws upon different disciplines such as behavioural sciences and humanities, and take values and value conflicts within society seriously.