Is Irish science responsible? It’s getting there

18 Nov 2016

Science and responsibility. Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

‘Responsibility’ is a term we don’t often hear in the context of science. Dr Padraig Murphy, programme chair of Dublin City University’s MSc in science communication, explains why that should change.

If we look back on history, there have been times when science and technology behaved irresponsibly. There was the Manhattan project, leading to the development of nuclear weapons in World War II, the widespread use of DDT pesticide across the US, the social Darwinism experiments that led to eugenic policies etc.

Irish science today is far removed from those horrors. At the moment, there are Science Foundation Ireland research centres throughout the country looking at medtech, materials and business innovations. They are tasked with addressing our energy needs as well as ageing populations.

Horizon 2020

Individual scientists, from the physical and social science fields, are world-renowned scholars. Centres like Adapt deliver ICT and multimodal media solutions, INFANT is dedicated to cutting-edge perinatal research and Cúram develops implantable medical devices. They each follow strict research integrity guidelines. They do not act irresponsibly.

However, the European Commission, supported by various other national science funders, has begun to introduce a new concept, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), as a cross-cutting strand across science funding calls.

What ‘responsible’ means here is a duty to society even more pronounced than before, so that institutions of science listen to societal concerns, and act quickly.

Cancer research carried out in, for example, the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland is tackling a huge societal issue, and so it is intrinsically responsible.

But this new concept challenges us, and particularly researchers, to think about both wider social responsibilities as well as local ones, and dialogue with advocacy groups and even those who may disagree with our methods.

Not just responsible, RRI also means responsive; implying that science and technology have a duty to respond to global and local challenges.

In RRI, research and innovation are anticipatory and reflexive; in other words, the enterprise of science looks ahead to potential public – or market – resistance, and institutions and individuals identify their own biases and assumptions.

A responsible science is inclusive – there are many stakeholders involved, not just the lab scientists we tend to think of. Non-academics are a meaningful part of the process of science, and so have a place in its design and implementation.

These concepts are particularly important when the technology is contentious.

Responsible science

Science must meet local needs. Pollution is rarely an option. Image: Calin Tatu/Shutterstock

For example, the ongoing ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign has its roots in a locally sensitive issue of the refining of energy resources – natural gas in this case – deemed by community groups to be using a technology that puts locals at risk. It has led to arrests and property damage.

Elsewhere, in 1999, genetically modified beet was uprooted by an activist group, because of negative views on GM technologies, more broadly.

Meanwhile, there has been intense political mobilisation against the process of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (fracking) in the Leitrim-Roscommon areas, and this issue will get more contentious.

RRI challenges institutional science to think political as well as ethical, to consider the bigger picture and small groups in society all at once, and respond on that basis. Deep engagement is central to its ethos.

Fanciful? A great academic idea that wouldn’t work in practice?

Dublin City University is part of a project of 24 international partners working to embed the principles and practices of RRI in real universities and research institutions.

The project, called NUCLEUS, represents a ‘New Understanding of Communication, Learning and Engagement in Universities and Scientific institutions’.

Based on field trips investigating different stakeholder groups of research, and interviews of university management and researchers, the project is developing a roadmap to RRI for 10 academic institutions.

These institutions will implement new policies co-developed by a dynamic mix of partners including research institutes, public engagement networks, city governments, journalists, and research policymakers.

Reaching beyond Europe, partners from across Europe, South Africa and China will also offer international perspectives. The goal is to rewrite the institutional and cultural rules of universities and research-intensive institutions.

RRI, woven into an institute’s administration and identity, would manage these multiple perspectives on research and innovation from the external areas of policy, media, community partners, and other research institutions and their science communication policies.

Responsible science

Responsible science comes with a decent dose of philosophy. Socrates image: Pan_Media/Shutterstock

How do these ideas from society and the resulting action affect the development of science itself, and how would an embedded system of RRI support work? This is what NUCLEUS has set out to learn, and demonstrate.

Irish science is currently addressing global challenges. However – and not to labour too much on acronyms – Irish research and innovation can be reinvigorated and further contextualised in society by RRI.

The hope is that this concept becomes embedded in Irish universities and research institutions, facilitating a science that listens and responds even more carefully.

That way, wind turbines, GM crops and incinerators are conceived and developed – if they are at all – in a participatory way, which can truly be said to be a science for the people of this country and beyond.

It is the responsible thing to do.