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To be a responsible researcher, reach out and listen

Elisabeth Pain

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The following text is a small excerpt from the original publication. Within the general INRMM-MiD goal of indexing useful meta-information on INRMM related publications, this excerpt is intended as a handy summary of some potentially interesting aspects of the publication. However, the excerpt is surely incomplete and some key aspects may be missing or their correct interpretation may require the full publication to be carefully read. Please, refer to the full publication for any detail.


Vietnam’s Red River is a lifeblood of the country’s economy. But managing its delta region—which is home to 17 million people; hosts the capital city Hanoi, as well as extensive industrial, agricultural, and navigational activities; and provides crucial environmental services—is also a source of conflict between local stakeholders, each with different needs and priorities.
Rodolfo Soncini-Sessa isn’t a local himself—he’s a professor of natural resources management a continent away, at the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy. But after he published a couple of books describing how he and his colleagues had helped address water management problems in Italy by working directly with the many people who could be affected, the Vietnamese government sought his help. Soncini-Sessa dove in, engaging ministries, the flood control agency, hydropower companies, the rice farmer league, and navigation companies in the design of a mathematical model of the river basin and simulation of various strategies to manage it.
Involving stakeholders in all aspects of a research project is complicated and time-consuming. But the advantage, Soncini-Sessa says, is that it gives everyone shared responsibility in both the process and outcome and is thus more likely to lead to a viable and equitable solution. In the case of the Red River project, that meant coming to a compromise—which the Vietnamese government is now working to implement. “A win-win solution is always the best solution if it exists,” Soncini-Sessa says, “but the only way of finding it is by looking for the points of view of each one of the stakeholders.”

Responsible research and innovation. [...] There has also been a growing scholarly debate about the ethical, legal, and social aspects of conducting research. Furthermore, the scientific community is grappling with internal issues, such as research ethics and lack of diversity, that affect how the public perceives research.
In 2013, the European Commission (EC) increased the momentum behind all of these topics by bringing them under a common policy framework as part of Horizon 2020 (H2020), the EC funding program for research and innovation that covers 2014 to 2020. Known as Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), the framework “brings this holistic view of different key issues in the complex relationship between science and society,” says Ignasi López Verdeguer, the director of the Department of Science and Research at “la Caixa” Banking Foundation in Spain and coordinator of RRI Tools, an EC-funded project that gathers information about what RRI is and how to implement it. RRI challenges scientists to pay more attention to what society has to tell them by taking a more inclusive, reflective, and anticipatory approach to their research. As the EC currently defines it, RRI is above all “an inclusive approach to research and innovation” that “aims to better align both the process and outcomes of [.research and innovation.] with the values, needs and expectations of European society.” [...] The EC is not alone in its efforts to promote socially responsible research. UNESCO highlighted the growing importance of RRI principles globally in its 2015 science report. Some national governments, funding bodies, research institutions, and scientific fields across Europe are promoting responsible research and innovation, and similar efforts extend beyond the continent. [...] Yet RRI has also met some resistance from the scientific community. In particular, some researchers worry that it may pressure scientists against doing blue-sky research, López Verdeguer says. [...] Another common misconception López Verdeguer hears is that engaging societal stakeholders means sacrificing academic freedom. RRI “is not about leaving the responsibility to the general public to decide on what you are going to research or not, but it’s having the capacity to listen to them when it’s necessary,” he clarifies.
There are several barriers and challenges, however. In addition to still being a rather abstract concept, many researchers find RRI at odds with how research usually works, the members of the Vienna network write. For example, there is tension between researchers being expected to anticipate how their work will impact society “and the inherent uncertainties of ... research processes.” Many researchers would also argue that today’s academic research culture is not conducive to RRI, the network continues. “High levels of competition and secrecy, temporary contracts and time pressure are amongst the most often mentioned unfavorable conditions for responsible research,” they write, adding that “RRI is not (yet) sufficiently rewarded in how research is assessed.” [...]
Given the potential career challenges that adopting RRI can present, which may be particularly consequential for junior scientists, researchers should proceed with caution, especially if they lack institutional support or incentives. [...] Not all aspects of RRI are suited to all fields, and the future of RRI as a policy concept and as a concrete set of academic practices remains to be seen. But by encouraging scientists to reach out and listen to the public, RRI offers some incentives and rewards that may be difficult to find otherwise. As Soncini-Sessa says of his Vietnam project and others, “this is an emotional moment, when you perceive that there is something that can be an advantage for all.” Ultimately, taking an RRI approach to research “is the only way of solving the problems we have in the world.” [...]

Science (January 2017), 
Key: INRMM:14509598



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