A few weeks ago, Josepine Fernow wrote an urgent blog post about science and language. She linked to a research debate about conceptual challenges for neuroscience, challenges that arise when ordinary words get specialized uses in science as technically defined terms.
In the case under debate, the word “sentience” had been imported into the scientific study of the brain. A research group reported that they were able to determine that in vitro neurons from humans and mice have learning abilities and that they exhibit “sentience” in a simulated game world. Of course, it caused quite a stir that some neurons grown in a laboratory could exhibit sentience! But the research team did not mean what attracted attention. They meant something very technical that only a specialist in the field can understand. The surprising thing about the finding was therefore the choice of words.
When the startling choice of words was questioned by other researchers, the research team defended themselves by saying that they defined the term “sentience” strictly scientifically, so that everyone should have understood what they meant, at least the colleagues in the field. Well, not all people are specialists in the relevant field. Thus the discovery – whatever it was that was discovered – raised a stir among people as if it were a discovery of sentience in neurons grown in a laboratory.
The research group’s attitude towards their own technical language is similar to an attitude I encountered long ago in a famous theorist of language, Noam Chomsky. This is what Chomsky said about the scientific study of the nature of language: “every serious approach to the study of language departs from the common-sense usage, replacing it by some technical concept.” Chomsky is of course right that linguistics defines its own technical concepts of language. But one can sense a certain hubris in the statement, because it sounds as if only a linguistic theorist could understand “language” in a way that is worthy of serious attention. This is untenable, because it raises the question what a technical concept of language is. In what sense is a technical concept a concept of language? Is it a technical concept of language in the common sense? Or is it a technical concept of language in the same inaccessible sense? In the latter case, the serious study of language seems to degenerate into a navel-gazing that does not access language.
For a technical concept of language to be a concept of language, our ordinary notions must be taken into account. Otherwise, the technical concept ceases to be a concept of language.
This is perhaps something to consider in neuroscience as well. Namely to the extent that one wants to shed light on phenomena such as consciousness and sentience. Of course, neuroscience will define its own technical concepts of these phenomena, as in the debated case. But if the technical concepts are to function as concepts of consciousness and sentience, then one cannot neglect our ordinary uses of words.
Science is very serious and important. But if the special significance of science goes to our heads, then our attitude risks undermining the great importance of science for humanity. Here you can read the views of three neuroethicists on these important linguistic issues: Conceptual conundrums for neuroscience.
All communications require a shared language and fruitful discussions rely on conceptual clarity and common terms. Different definitions and divergent nomenclatures is a challenge for science: across different disciplines, between professions and when engaging with different publics. The audience for science communications is diverse. Research questions and results need to be shared within the field, between fields, with policy makers and publics. To be effective, the language, style and channel should to be adapted to the audiences’ needs, values and expectations.
This is not just in public facing communications. A recent discussion in Neuron is addressing the semantics of “sentience” in scientific communication, starting from an article by Brett J Kagan et al. on how in vitro neurons learn and exhibit sentience when embodied in a simulated game world. The article was published in December 2022 and received a lot of attention: both positive media coverage and a mix of positive and negative reactions from the scientific community. In a response, Fuat Balci et al. express concerns about the key claim in the article: claims that the authors demonstrated that cortical neurons are able to (in vitro) self-organise and display intelligent and sentient behaviour in a simulated game-world. Balci et al. are (among other things) critical of the use of terms and concepts that they claim misrepresent the findings. They also claim that Kagan et al. are overselling the translational and societal relevance of their findings. In essence creating hype around their own research. They raise a discussion about the importance of scientific communication: media tends to relay information from abstracts and statements about the significance of the research, and the scientists themselves amplify these statements in interviews. They claim that overselling results has an impact on how we evaluate scientific credibility and reliability.
Why does this happen? Balci et al. point to a paper by Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom, from 2021 on misinformation in and about science, suggesting that hype, hyperbole (using exaggeration as a figure of speech or rhetorical device) and publication bias might have to do with demands on different productivity metrics. According to West and Bergstrom, exaggeration in popular scientific writing isn’t just misinforming the public: it also misleads researchers. In turn leading to citation misdirection and citation bias. A related problem is predatory publishing, which has the potential to mislead those of us without the means to detect untrustworthy publishers. And to top it off, echo-chambers and filter bubbles help select and deselect information and amplify the messages they think you want to hear.
The discussion in Neuron has continued with a response by Brett J. Kagan et al., in a letter about scientific communication and the semantics of sentience. They start by stating that the use of language to describe specific phenomena is a contentious aspect of scientific discourse and that whether scientific communication is effective or not depends on the context where the language is used. And that in this case using the term “sentience” has a technical meaning in line with recent literature in theoretical biology and the free energy principle, where biotic self-organisation is defined as either active inference or sentient behaviour.
They make an interesting point that takes us back to the beginning of this post, namely the challenges of multidisciplinary work. Advancing research in cross-disciplinary collaboration is often challenging in the beginning because of difficulties integrating across fields. But if the different nomenclatures and approaches are recognized as an opportunity to improve and innovate, there can be benefits.
Recently, another letter by Karen S. Rommelfanger, Khara M. Ramos and Arleen Salles added a layer of reflection on the conceptual conundrums for neuroscience. In their own field of neuroethics, calls for clear language and concepts in scientific practice and communication is nothing new. They have all argued that conceptual clarity can improve science, enhance our understanding and lead to a more nuanced and productive discussion about the ethical issues. In the letter, the authors raise an important point about science and society. If we really believe that scientific terminology can retain its technically defined meaning when we transfer words to contexts permeated by a variety of cultural assumptions and colloquial uses of those same terms, we run the risk of trivialising the social and ethical impact that the choice of scientific terminology can have. They ask whether it is responsible of scientists to consider peers as their only (relevant) audience, or if conceptual clarity in science might often require public engagement and a multidisciplinary conversation.
One could also suggest that the choice to opt for terms like “sentience” and “intelligence” as a technical characterisation of how cortical neurons function in a simulated in-vitro game-world, could be considered to be questionable also from the point of view of scientific development. If we agree that neuroscience can shed light on sentience and intelligence, we also have to admit that at as of yet, we don’t know exactly how it will illuminate these capacities. And perhaps that means it is too early to bind very specific technical meaning to terms that have both colloquial and cultural meaning, and which neuroscience can illuminate in as yet unknown ways?
You may wonder why an ethics blog writer dares to express views on scientific terminology. The point I am trying to make is that we all use language, but we also produce language. Everyday. Together. In almost everything we do. This means that words like sentience and intelligence belong to us all. We have a shared responsibility for how we use them. The decision to give these common words technical meaning has consequences for how people will understand neuroscience when the words find their way back out of the technical context. But there can also be consequences for science when the words find their way in, as in the case under discussion. Because the boundaries between science and society might not be so clearly distinguishable as one might think.
Philosophers have an ambiguous position in the knowledge society which could support democratic conversations where truth and openness are united. On the one hand, philosophers are driven by a strong desire for the truth. They ask questions more often than they give answers, and they do not give answers until they have thoroughly explored the questions and judged that they can establish the truth, to speak a little pompously. On the other hand, philosophers cannot communicate their conclusions to society with the same authority that empirical scientists can communicate their findings. Philosophical reasoning, however rigorous it may appear to be, does not function as scientific evidence. It would be doubtful if a philosopher said, “A very clear reasoning which I recently carried out shows that…,” and expected people to accept the conclusion, as we expect people to accept the results of empirical studies.
Despite their strong desire to find the truth, philosophers can thus rarely “inform” about the truths they believe they have found, but must exercise restraint and present these truths as proposals, and then appeal to their interlocutors to judge the proposal for themselves. That is, to think for themselves. The desire to communicate one’s philosophical conclusions to others thus results in conversations on more or less equal terms, where more or less clear reasoning is developed together during the course of the conversation. The philosopher’s ambiguous position in the knowledge society can here act as a catalyst for conversations where the aspiration to think correctly, and the will to think freely, support each other.
The ambiguous position of philosophy in the knowledge society is evident in medical ethics, because here philosophy is in dialogue with patients, healthcare professionals and medical researchers. In medical ethics, there are sometimes so-called “ethics rounds,” where an ethicist visits the hospital and discusses patient cases with the staff from ethical perspectives. The role of the ethicist or philosopher in these conversations is not to draw the correct ethical conclusions and then inform the staff of the morally right thing to do. By striving for truth and by asking questions, the philosopher rather supports the staff’s own ethical reasoning. Of course, one or another of the philosopher’s own conclusions can be expressed in the conversation, but as a suggestion and as an invitation to the staff to investigate for themselves whether it can be so. Often the most important thing is to identify the crucial issues. The philosopher’s ambiguous standing can in these contexts act as a catalyst for good conversations.
Another area where the ambiguous position of philosophy in the knowledge society is evident is in research communication of ethics research, like the one we do here at CRB. Ethicists sometimes conduct empirical studies of various kinds (surveys, interviews and experiments). They can then naturally expect people (the general public or relevant groups) to take the results to heart. But these empirical studies are usually done to shed light on some ethical difficulty and to draw ethical, normative conclusions on good grounds. Again, these conclusions can rarely be communicated as research findings, so the communicator also has to exercise restraint and present the conclusions as relevant proposals to continue thinking and talking about. Research communication becomes not only informative and explanatory, but also thoughtful. It appeals to people to think for themselves. Awareness of the ambiguous position of philosophy can thus support research communication that raises open questions, in addition to disseminating and explaining scientific findings.
Since political conclusions based on scientific studies seem to have a similar ambiguous status to ethical and philosophical conclusions, philosophy could also inspire wiser democratic conversations about how research should be implemented in society. This applies not least to controversial issues, which often polarize and encourage debaters to make strong claims to possess the best evidence and the most rigorous reasoning, which they believe justifies their positions. But such a truth authority on how we should live and organize society hardly exists, even if we strive for the truth. As soon as we talk to each other, we can only make suggestions and appeal to our interlocutors to judge the matter for themselves, just as we ourselves listen to our interlocutors’ objections, questions and suggestions.
Strong pursuit of truth requires great openness. When we philosophize, these aspects are at best united. In this way, philosophy could inspire democratic conversations where people actually talk to each other and seek the truth together. Not just make their voices heard.
Sometimes we all resist facts. I saw a cyclist slip on the icy road. When I asked if it went well, she was on her feet in an instant and denied everything: “I did not fall!” It is human to deny facts. They can hurt and be disturbing.
What are we resisting? The usual answer is that fact-resistant individuals or groups resist facts about the world around us, such as statistics on violent crime, on vaccine side effects, on climate change or on the spread of disease. It then becomes natural to offer resistance to fact resistance by demanding more rigour in the field of knowledge. People should learn to turn more rigorously to the world they live in! The problem is that fact-resistant attitudes do just that. They are almost bewitched by the world and by the causes of what are perceived as outrageous problems in it. And now we too are bewitched by fact resistance and speculate about the causes of this outrageous problem.
Of course, we believe that our opposition is justified. But who does not think so? Legitimate resistance is met by legitimate resistance, and soon the conflict escalates around its double spiral of legitimacy. The possibility of resolving it is blocked by the conflict itself, because all parties are equally legitimate opponents of each other. Everyone hears their own inner voices warning them from acknowledging their mistakes, from acknowledging their uncertainty, from acknowledging their human resistance to reality, as when we fall off the bike and wish it had never happened. The opposing side would immediately seize the opportunity! Soon, our mistake is a scandal on social media. So we do as the person who slipped on the icy road, we deny everything without thinking: “I was not wrong, I had my own facts!” We ignore the fact that life thereby becomes a lie, because our inner voices warn us from acknowledging our uncertainty. We have the right to be recognized, our voices insist, at least as an alternative to the “established view.”
Conflicts give us no time for reflection. Yet, there is really nothing stopping us from sitting down, in the midst of conflict, and resolving it within ourselves. When we give ourselves time to think for ourselves, we are freer to acknowledge our uncertainty and examine our spirals of thought. Of course, this philosophical self-examination does not resolve the conflict between legitimate opponents which escalates around us as increasingly impenetrable and real. It only resolves the conflict within ourselves. But perhaps our thoughtful philosophical voice still gives a hint of how, just by allowing us to soar in uncertainty, we already see the emptiness of the conflict and are free from it?
If we more often dared to soar in uncertainty, if it became more permissible to say “I do not know,” if we listened more attentively to thoughtful voices instead of silencing them with loud knowledge claims, then perhaps fact resistance also decreases. Perhaps fact resistance is not least resistance to an inner fact. To a single inner fact. What fact? Our insecurity as human beings, which we do not permit ourselves. But if you allow yourself to slip on the icy road, then you do not have to deny that you did!
How do you communicate about research with people who are not researchers? The scientific results usually presuppose a complicated intellectual framework, which the researchers have acquired through long education and experience. How can we talk about their research with people who are not researchers?
At CRB, we take research communication seriously, so this question follows us daily. A common way to solve the problem is to replace researchers’ complex intellectual frameworks with simple images, which people in general are more familiar with. An example could be comparing a body cell with a small factory. We thus compare the unknown with the familiar, so that the reader gets a certain understanding: “Aha, the cell functions as a kind of factory.”
Giving research results a more comprehensible context by using images that replace the researchers’ intellectual framework often works well. We sometimes use that method ourselves here at CRB. But we also use another way of embedding the research, so that it touches people. We use philosophical reflection. We ask questions that you do not need to be an expert to wonder about. The questions lead to thoughts that you do not need to be a specialist to follow. Finally, the research results are incorporated into the reasoning. We then point out that a new article sheds light on the issues we have thought about together. In this way, the research gets an understandable context, namely, in the form of thoughts that anyone can have.
We could call this philosophical research communication. There is a significant difference between these two ways of making research understandable. When simple images are used, they only aim to make people (feel that they) understand what they are not familiar with. The images are interchangeable. If you find a better image, you immediately use it instead. The images are not essential in themselves. That we compare the body cell with a factory does not express any deep interest in factories. But the philosophical questions and reflections that we at CRB embed the research in, are essential in themselves. They are sincere questions and thoughts. They cannot be replaced by other questions and reasoning, for the sole purpose of effectively conveying research results. In philosophical research communication, we give research an essential context, which is not just an interchangeable pedagogical aid. The embedding is as important as what is embedded.
Philosophical research communication is particularly important to us at CRB, as we are a centre for ethics research. Our research is driven by philosophical questions and reflections, for example, within the Human Brain Project, which examines puzzling phenomena such as consciousness and artificial intelligence. Even when we perform empirical studies, the point of those studies is to shed light on ethical problems and thoughts. In our research communication, we focus on this interplay between the philosophically thought-provoking and the empirical results.
Another difference between these ways of communicating research has to do with equality. Since the simple images that are used to explain research are not essential in themselves, such research communication is, after all, somewhat unequal. The comparison, which seemed to make us equal, is not what the communication is really about. The reader’s acquaintance with factories does not help the reader to have their own views on research. Philosophical research communication is different. Because the embedding philosophical questions and thoughts are essential and meant seriously, we meet on the same level. We can wonder together about the same honest questions. When research is communicated philosophically, communicators as well as researchers and non-researchers are equal.
Philosophical research communication can thereby deepen the meaning of the research, sometimes even for the researchers themselves!
As philosophical research communication unites us around common questions and thoughts, it is important in an increasingly fragmented and specialized society. It helps us to think together, which is easier than you might believe, if we dare to open up to our own questions. Here, of course, I assume that the communication is sincere, that it comes from independently thinking people, that it is not based on any intellectually constructed thought patterns, which one must be a philosophy expert to understand.
In that case, philosophical research communicators would need to bring philosophy itself to life, by sincerely asking the most alive questions.
When the coronavirus began to spread outside China a year ago, the Director General of the World Health Organization said that we are not only fighting an epidemic, but also an infodemic. The term refers to the rapid spread of often false or questionable information.
While governments fight the pandemic through lockdowns, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube fight the infodemic through other kinds of lockdowns and framings of information considered as misinformation. Content can be provided with warning signs and links to what are considered more reliable sources of information. Content can also be removed and in some cases accounts can be suspended.
In an article in EMBO Reports, Emilia Niemiec asks if there are wiser ways to handle the spread of medical misinformation than by letting commercial actors censor the content on their social media platforms. In addition to the fact that censorship seems to contradict the idea of these platforms as places where everyone can freely express their opinion, it is unclear how to determine what information is false and harmful. For example, should researchers be allowed to use YouTube to discuss possible negative consequences of the lockdowns? Or should such content be removed as harmful to the fight against the pandemic?
If commercial social media platforms remove content on their own initiative, why do they choose to do so? Do they do it because the content is scientifically controversial? Or because it is controversial in terms of public opinion? Moreover, in the midst of a pandemic with a new virus, the state of knowledge is not always as clear as one might wish. In such a situation it is natural that even scientific experts disagree on certain important issues. Can social media companies then make reasonable decisions about what we currently know scientifically? We would then have a new “authority” that makes important decisions about what should be considered scientifically proven or well-grounded.
Emilia Niemiec suggests that a wiser way to deal with the spread of medical misinformation is to increase people’s knowledge of how social media works, as well as how research and research communication work. She gives several examples of what we may need to learn about social media platforms and about research to be better equipped against medical misinformation. Education as a vaccine, in other words, which immunises us against the misinformation. This immunisation should preferably take place as early as possible, she writes.
I would like to recommend Emilia Niemiec’s article as a thoughtful discussion of issues that easily provoke quick and strong opinions. Perhaps this is where the root of the problem lies. The pandemic scares us, which makes us mentally tense. Without that fear, it is difficult to understand the rapid spread of unjustifiably strong opinions about facts. Our fear in an uncertain situation makes us demand knowledge, precisely because it does not exist. Anything that does not point in the direction that our fear demands immediately arouses our anger. Fear and anger become an internal mechanism that, at lightning speed, generates hardened opinions about what is true and false, precisely because of the uncertainty of the issues and of the whole situation.
So I am dreaming of one further vaccine. Maybe we need to immunise ourselves also against the fear and the anger that uncertainty causes in our rapidly belief-forming intellects. Can we immunise ourselves against something as human as fear and anger in uncertain situations? In any case, the thoughtfulness of the article raises hopes about it.
To understand how our genes affect health and disease, drug reactions, and much more, researchers need to share vast amounts of data from people in different parts of the world. This makes genomic research dependent on public trust and support.
Do people in general trust research? Are we willing to donate DNA and health information to researchers? Are we prepared to let researchers share the information with other researchers, perhaps in other parts of the world? Even with researchers at for-profit companies? These and other issues were recently examined in the largest study to date about the public’s attitudes to participating in research and sharing genetic information. The questionnaire was translated into 15 languages and answered by 36,268 people in 22 countries.
The majority of respondents are unwilling or unsure about donating DNA and health information to research. In general, the respondents are most willing to donate to research physicians, and least willing to donate to for-profit researchers. Less than half of the respondents say they trust data sharing between several users. The study also reveals differences between countries. In Germany, Poland, Russia and Egypt, for example, trust in data sharing between several users is significantly lower than in China, India, the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
What practical conclusions can we draw from the study? The authors of the article emphasize the importance of increasing the public’s familiarity with genomic research. Researchers need to build trust in data collection and sharing. They need to participate in dialogues that make it clear why they share large amounts of data globally. Why is it so important? It also needs to become more understandable why not only physicians can carry out the research. Why are collaborations with for-profit companies needed? Moreover, what significance can genetic techniques have for future patients?
Well-functioning genomic research thus needs well-functioning research communication. What then is good research communication? According to the article, it is not about pedagogically illustrating the molecular structure of DNA. Rather, it is about understanding the conditions and significance of genomic research for healthcare, patients, and society, as well as the role of industry in research and development.
Personally, I want to put it this way. Good research communication helps us see things more perspicuously. We need continuous overviews of interrelated parts of our own societies. We need to see our roles and relationships with each other in complex societies with different but intertwined activities, such as research, healthcare, industry, and much more. The need for perspicuous overviews also applies to the experts, whose specialties easily create one-sidedness.
In this context, let me cautiously warn against the instinctive reaction to believe that debate is the obvious form of research-communicative exchange of thoughts. Although debates have a role to play, they often serve as arenas for competing perspectives, all of which want to narrow our field of view. This is probably the last thing we need, if we want to open up for perspicuous understandings of ourselves as human beings, researchers, donors, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals and patients. How do we relate to each other? How do I, as a donor of DNA to researchers, relate to the patients I want to help?
We need to think carefully about what it means to think freely, together, about common issues, such as the global sharing of genomic data.
Middleton A., Milne R. and Almarri M.A. et al. (2020). Global public perceptions of genomic data sharing: what shapes the willingness to donate DNA and health data? American Journal of Human Genetics. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2020.08.023
Academic research is driven by dissemination of results to peers at conferences and through publication in scientific journals. However, research results belong not only to the research community. They also belong to society. Therefore, results should reach not only your colleagues in the field or the specialists in adjacent fields. They should also reach outside the academy.
Who is out there? A homogeneous public? No, it is not that simple. Communicating research is not two activities: first communicating the science to peers and then telling the popular scientific story to the public. Outside the academy, we find engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, government officials, teachers, students, research funders, taxpayers, healthcare professionals… We are all out there with our different experiences, functions and skills.
Research communication is therefore a strategically more complicated task than just “reaching the public.” Why do you want to communicate your results; why are they important? Who will find your results important? How do you want to communicate them? When is the best time to communicate? There is not just one task here. You have to think through what the task is in each particular case. For the task varies with the answers to these questions. Only when you can think strategically about the task can you communicate research responsibly.
Josepine Fernow’s contribution is, in my view, more than a convincing argument. It is an eye-opening text that helps researchers see more clearly their diverse relationships to society, and thereby their responsibilities. The academy is not a rock of knowledge in a sea of ignorant lay people. Society consists of experienced people who, because of what they know, can benefit from your research. It is easier to think strategically about research communication when you survey your relations to a diversified society that is already knowledgeable. Josepine Fernow’s argumentation helps and motivates you to do that.
Josepine Fernow also warns against exaggerating the significance of your results. Bioscience has potential to give us effective treatments for serious diseases, new crops that meet specific demands, and much more. Since we are all potential beneficiaries of such research, as future patients and consumers, we may want to believe the excessively wishful stories that some excessively ambitious researchers want to tell. We participate in a dangerous game of increasingly unrealistic hopes.
The name of this dangerous game is hype. Research hype can make it difficult for you to continue your research in the future, because of eroded trust. It can also make you prone to take unethical shortcuts. The “huge potential benefit” obscures your judgment as a responsible researcher.
Responsible research communication is as important as difficult. Therefore, these tasks deserve our greatest attention. Read Josepine Fernow’s argumentation for carefully planned communication strategies. It will help you see more clearly your responsibility.
The STARBIOS2 project has carried out its activities in a context of the profound transformations that affect contemporary societies, and now we are all facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Science and society have always coevolved, they are interconnected entities, but their relationship is changing and it has been for some time. This shift from modern to so-called postmodern society affects all social institutions in similar ways, whether their work is in politics, religion, family, state administration, or bioscience.
We can find a wide range of phenomena connected to this trend in the literature, for instance: globalization; weakening of previous social “structures” (rules, models of action, values and beliefs); more capacity and power of individuals to think and act more freely (thanks also to new communication technologies); exposure to risks of different kinds (climate change, weakening of welfare, etc.); great social and cultural diversification; and weakening of traditional boundaries and spheres of life, etc.
In this context, we are witnessing the diminishing authority and prestige of all political, religious, even scientific institutions, together with a decline in people’s trust towards these institutions. One example would be the anti-vaccination movement.
Meanwhile, scientific research is also undergoing profound transformations, experiencing a transition that has been examined in various ways and called various names. At the heart of this transformation is the relationship between research and the society it belongs to. We can observe a set of global trends in science.
Such trends include the increasing relationship between universities, governments and industries; the emergence of approaches aimed at “opening” science to society, such as citizen science; the diffusion of cooperative practices in scientific production; the increasing relevance of transdisciplinarity; the increasing expectation that scientific results have economic, social, and environmental impacts; the increasingly competitive access to public funds for research; the growing importance attached to quantitative evaluation systems based on publications, often with distorting effects and questionable results; and the emergence on the international economic and technological scene of actors such as India, China, Brazil, South Africa and others. These trends produce risks and opportunities for both science and society.
Critical concerns for science includes career difficulties for young researchers and women in the scientific sector; the cost of publishing and the difficulties to publish open access; and the protection of intellectual property rights.
Of course, these trends and issues manifest in different ways and intensities according to the different political, social and cultural contexts they exist in.
After the so-called “biological revolution” and within the context of the “fourth industrial revolution” and with “converging technologies” like genetics, robotics, info-digital, neurosciences, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, and artificial intelligence, the biosciences are at a crossroads in its relationship to society.
In this new context, more and more knowledge is produced and technological solutions developed require a deeper understanding of their status, limits, and ethical and social acceptability (take organoids, to name one example). Moreover, food security, clean energy transition, climate change, and pandemics are all challenges where bioscience can play a crucial role, while new legal, ethical, and social questions that need to be dealt with arise.
These processes have been running for years, albeit in different ways, and national and international decision-makers have been paying attention. Various forms of governance have been developed and implemented over time, to re-establish and harmonize the relationship between scientific and technological research and the rest of society, including more general European strategies and approaches such as Smart Specialization, Open Innovation, Open Science and Responsible Research and Innovation as well as strategies related to specific social aspects of science (such as ethics or gender).
Taking on an approach such as RRI is not simply morally recommendable, but indispensable for attempting a re-alignment between scientific research and the needs of society. Starting from the areas of the life of the scientific communities that are most crucial to science-society relations (The 5+1 RRI keys: Science education, Gender equality, Public engagement, Ethics, Open access, and the cross-cutting sixth key: Governance) and taking the four RRI dimensions into account (anticipation, inclusiveness, responsiveness, and reflexivity) can provide useful guidance for how to activate and drive change in research organisations and research systems.
We elaborate and experiment, in search of the most effective and most relevant solution. While at the same time, there is a need to encourage mainstreaming of the most substantial solutions, to root them more deeply and sustainably in the complex fabric of scientific organisations and networks. Which leads us to ask ourselves: in this context, how can we mainstream RRI and its application in the field of bioscience?
Based on what we know, and on experiences from the STARBIOS2 project, RRI and similar approaches need to be promoted and supported by specific policies and contextualised on at least four levels.
Organizational contextualization Where mainstreaming takes place through the promotion of a greater embedment of RRI, or similar approaches, within the individual research organizations such as universities, national institutes, private centres, etc.
Disciplinary or sectoral contextualization Where mainstreaming consists of adapting the responsible research and innovation approach to a specific discipline − for example, biotechnology − or to an entire “sector” in a broad sense, such as bioscience.
Geopolitical and cultural contextualization Where mainstreaming aims to identify forms of adaptation, or rather reshaping, RRI or similar approaches, in various geopolitical and cultural contexts, taking into account elements such as the features of the national research systems, the economy, territorial dynamics, local philosophy and traditions, etc.
Historical contextualization Where RRI mainstreaming is related to the ability of science to respond to the challenges that history poses from time to time − and of which the COVID-19 pandemic is only the last, serious example − and to prevent them as much as possible.
During the course of the STARBIOS2 project, we have developed a set of guidelines and a sustainable model for RRI implementation in bioscience research institutions. Over the course of 4 years, 6 bioscience research institutions in Europe, and 3 outside Europe, worked together to achieve structural change towards RRO in their own research institutions with the goal of achieving responsible biosciences. We were looking forward to revealing and discussing our results in April, but with the Covid-19 outbreak, neither that event nor our Cape Town workshop was a possibility. Luckily, we have adapted and will now share our findings online, at our final event on 29 May. We hope to see you there.
For our final remark, as the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging our societies, our political and economic systems, we recognise that scientists are also being challenged. By the corona virus as well as by contextual challenges. The virus is testing their ability to play a key role to the public, to share information and to produce relevant knowledge. But when we go back to “normal”, the challenge of changing science-society relations will persist. And we will remain convinced that RRI and similar approaches will be a valuable contribution to addressing these challenges, now and in the future.
Daniele Mezzana, a social researcher working in the STARBIOS2 project (Structural Transformation to Attain Responsible BIOSciences) as part of the coordination team at University of Rome – Tor Vergata.
This text is based on the Discussion Note for the STARBIOS2 final event on 29 May 2020.
The STARBIOS2 project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 709517. The contents of this text and the view expressed are the sole responsibility of the author and under no circumstances can be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.
Our attitude to science is changing. Can we talk solemnly about it anymore as a unified endeavor, or even about sciences? It seems more apt to talk about research activities that produce useful and applicable knowledge.
Science has been dethroned, it seems. In the past, we revered it as free and independent search for the truth. We esteemed it as our tribunal of truth, as the last arbiter of truth. Today, we demand that it brings benefits and adapts to society. The change is full of tension because we still want to use scientific expertise as a higher intellectual authority. Should we bow to the experts or correct them if they do not deliver the “right knowledge” or the “desirable facts”?
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is an attempt to manage this risky change, adapting science to new social requirements. As you hear from the name, RRI is partly an expression of the same basic attitude change. One could perhaps view RRI as the responsible dethroning of science.
Some mourn the dethroning, others rejoice. Here I just want to link RRI to the changed attitude to science. RRI handles a change that is basically affirmed. The ambiguous attitude to scientific expertise, mentioned above, shows how important it is that we take responsibility for people’s trust in what is now called research and innovation. For why should we listen to representatives of a sector with such unholy designation?
RRI is introduced in European research within the Horizon 2020 programme. Several projects are specifically about implementing and studying RRI. Important aspects of RRI are gender equality, open access publishing, science education, research communication, public engagement and ethics. It is about adapting research and innovation to a society with new hopes and demands on what we proudly called science.
A new book describes experiences of implementing RRI in a number of bioscience organizations around the world. The book is written within the EU-project, STARBIOS2. In collaboration with partners in Europe, Africa and the Americas, this project planned and implemented several RRI initiatives and reflected on the work process. The purpose of STARBIOS2 has been to change organizations durably and structurally. The book aims to help readers formulate their own action plans and initiate structural changes in their organizations.
The cover describes the book as guidelines. However, you will not find formulated guidelines. What you will find, and which might be more helpful, is self-reflection on concrete examples of how to work with RRI action plans. You will find suggestions on how to emphasize responsibility in research and development. Thus, you can read about efforts to support gender equality, improve exchange with the public and with society, support open access publication, and improve ethics. Read and be inspired!
Finally, I would like to mention that the Ethics Blog, as well as our ethics activities here at CRB, could be regarded as examples of RRI. I plan to return later with a post on research communication.
The STARBIOS2 project is organising a virtual final event on 29 May! Have a look at the preliminary programme!