Needed: tougher ethics policies in EU research projects

09 Jul 2020 | Viewpoint

Viewpoint: ‘responsible research and innovation’ policies in Horizon 2020 don’t often translate into action, a new study shows. A broader, deeper effort is needed

peter novitzky

Peter Novitzky, post-doctoral researcher and ethicist, formerly at Waginengen University and the New Horrizon project consortium.

There are many examples of scientific breakthroughs made with good intentions but used for bad ends. As our innovations become more powerful and fraught with ethical unknowns, their impact on society, the environment and even what it means to be human cannot be underestimated or left to chance.

Thus it is that, for several years, the European Commission has been requiring that its research grantees take into account the societal implications of their work – an initiative in Horizon 2020 that it calls Responsible Research and Innovation. The intention is good. But, suggests our research published 3 July in Science magazine, the implementation is lacking. As the Commission prepares its next big research programme, Horizon Europe, it needs to rethink its strategy.

What is ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’?

The Commission’s objectives have a distinguished history. In 2014, at a conference organised by the then-Italian presidency of the EU, the “Rome Declaration” was drawn up to advocate that human rights and societal values be incorporated into decisions regarding European research and innovation (R&I). These rights and principles include freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law, as well as others already defined in the Lisbon Treaty and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Declaration said scientific excellence and sustainable and desirable innovation could only be attained with societal support and acceptance. But these days, we are seeing large swathes of mainstream societies moving away from and losing confidence in science and scientists, as well as in governments and policy-makers. So how can we reverse this trend and improve not only society’s relationship with science but science’s relationship with society?

One framework developed by the Commission to achieve this is that of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). This framework sets out six “keys” that Horizon 2020 grantees should consider in conducting their research. They are public engagement, gender equality, science education and science literacy, open access, ethics, and governance. RRI also supports the notion of “openness” in innovation, science, and international collaboration.

Gaps in EU implementation

How effective has this policy been? Has it translated into action by the grantees? To answer, a group of us (thanks to a Horizon 2020 grant) looked through hundreds of Commission documents, interviewed 257 grantees, and used natural language algorithms to analyse the stated objectives of six years of Horizon 2020 projects – 13,644 projects in all.

What we found: while societal values and ethics are relatively well embedded at the level of declarative and strategic policies, they are less well manifested at the operational level, for example, when it comes to funding calls. Unsurprisingly, it follows that societal values and ethics are mostly superficially implemented at the level of actual research projects by actual researchers, as demonstrated by their near absence in project objectives.

rri chart
The limits of ‘responsible research’ in Horizon 2020. To analyse how well Commission policies on ‘responsible research and innovation’ have been implemented in Horizon 2020, Novitzky and colleagues examined Commission documents, interviewed grantees and analysed project objectives. This chart shows, for each of the six key values and three “openness” objectives set by Commission policy, how much attention they are paid in the stated objectives of each Horizon 2020 project – from “superficial” to “high.” For more data, consult the Science article.

The study identified that one cause was that RRI was not well understood by researchers and if mentioned, RRI was often used as an empty signifier. This was in turn attributed not only to insufficient awareness and training but also to the ongoing evolution of the RRI framework, making it a more dynamic and nebulous concept to grasp and enact. At the same time, the RRI framework competes with other Commission objectives in Horizon 2020 – such as that research be excellent, have societal impact or economic value. These multiple agendas led to indecision and compromises that resulted in a failure to consistently integrate societal values into Horizon 2020 operations and research projects.

As we phrased it in the Science paper: “Although these findings by no means suggest that researchers are irresponsible, they raise questions about the success of the EC approach to embedding normative targets for responsibility into R&I.”

Practical recommendations

This suboptimal translation from policy to practice highlights the need for improved alignment between these two stages. To do this, we must ensure that demonstrable inclusion of societal values and ethics is fully integrated as a mandatory (normative) requirement for securing research funding and compliance with governance by the funding bodies. In addition, we must develop longer-lived instruments to build a shared and common understanding and awareness of the importance of responsibility for research and innovation, among all stakeholders, including scientists and all other members of society. RRI must shift from being a “cross-cutting issue”, as the Commission currently calls it, to being a “strategic concern” in policy-making and implementation. This should better guide coordinated priority-setting and allocation of funding and other resources towards research and innovation projects that are responsible in practice as well as theory.

All this will require interdisciplinary specialists, who are particularly invested in science and society relationships, to champion the integration and implementation of societal values and ethics across the board in Horizon Europe. Such comprehensive adoption at all levels should improve confidence and understanding of research and innovation within all segments of society.

If we learn only one lesson from the European consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be that there are no “quick technological fixes” to grand societal challenges that can ignore societal values. Researchers, industries, and policy makers cannot simply develop and deploy innovations and technologies without taking into account societal values, acceptability, and long-term consequences on the environment and society, and then expect their solutions to be successfully adopted. This is true as much for social distancing tracking-apps, as for AI-led solutions, therapies based on genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, and other emerging and often disruptive technologies.

The erosion of a social contract with science limits the ability of democratic societies worldwide to deal with future challenges. A stronger integration and adjustment of research and innovation policies to incorporate societal values will affirm Europe’s global role in developing ethically acceptable and socially responsible science and innovation.

What needs to happen

  • We need better integration and implementation of societal values and ethics in actual research and innovation projects to ensure mutual trust between society and science
  • For this, we need at the policy level to:
    • Invest long-term in building stakeholders’ capacity to take on societal responsibilities
    • Recognise societal values and ethics in European research and innovation policy as a strategic concern, with consistent and mandatory requirements incorporated into funding calls, project selection criteria and outcomes assessments
    • Official establishment and endorsement of interdisciplinary specialists to champion and drive the alignment and concrete integration of societal values and ethics in research and innovation, including throughout Europe’s Ninth Framework Programme, Horizon Europe

Peter Novitzky is a post-doctoral researcher and ethicist, formerly at Waginengen University and the New Horrizon project consortium. He is first author of the Science report {Science 03 Jul 2020, Vol. 369, Issue 6499, pp. 39-41, DOI: 10.1126/science.abb3415).

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