Development of new technologies sometimes draws inspiration from nature. How do plants and animals solve the problem? An example is robotics, where one wants to develop better robots based on what neuroscience knows about the brain. How does the brain solve the problem?
Neuroscience, in turn, sees new opportunities to test hypotheses about the brain by simulating them in robots. Perhaps one can simulate how areas of the brain interact in patients with Parkinson’s disease, to understand how their tremor and other difficulties are caused.
Neuroscience-inspired robotics, so-called neurorobotics, is still at an early stage. This makes neurorobotics an excellent area for being ethically and socially more proactive than we have been in previous technological developments. That is, we can already begin to identify possible ethical and social problems surrounding technological development and counteract them before they arise. For example, we cannot close our eyes to gender and equality issues, but must continuously reflect on how our own social and cultural patterns are reflected in the technology we develop. We need to open our eyes to our own blind spots!
You can read more about this ethical shift in technology development in an article in Science and Engineering Ethics (with Manuel Guerrero from CRB as one of the authors). The shift is called Responsible Research and Innovation, and is exemplified in the article by ongoing work in the European research project, Human Brain Project.
Not only neuroscientists and technology experts are collaborating in this project to develop neurorobotics. Scholars from the humanities and social sciences are also involved in the work. The article itself is an example of this broad collaboration. However, the implementation of responsible research and development is also at an early stage. It still needs to find more concrete forms of work that make it possible not only to anticipate ethical and social problems and reflect on them, but also to act and intervene to influence scientific and technological development.
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
An article in the journal Big Data & Society criticizes the form of ethics that has come to dominate research and innovation in artificial intelligence (AI). The authors question the same “framework interpretation” of ethics that you could read about on the Ethics Blog last week. However, with one disquieting difference. Rather than functioning as a fence that can set the necessary boundaries for development, the framework risks being used as ethics washing by AI companies that want to avoid legal regulation. By referring to ethical self-regulation – beautiful declarations of principles, values and guidelines – one hopes to be able to avoid legal regulation, which could set important limits for AI.
The problem with AI ethics as “soft ethics legislation” is not just that it can be used to avoid necessary legal regulation of the area. The problem is above all, according to the SIENNA researchers who wrote the article, that a “law conception of ethics” does not help us to think clearly about new situations. What we need, they argue, is an ethics that constantly renews our ability to see the new. This is because AI is constantly confronting us with new situations: new uses of robots, new opportunities for governments and companies to monitor people, new forms of dependence on technology, new risks of discrimination, and many other challenges that we may not easily anticipate.
The authors emphasize that such eye-opening AI ethics requires close collaboration with the social sciences. That, of course, is true. Personally, I want to emphasize that an ethics that renews our ability to see the new must also be philosophical in the deepest sense of the word. To see the new and unexpected, you cannot rest comfortably in your professional competence, with its established methods, theories and concepts. You have to question your own disciplinary framework. You have to think for yourself.
The word ethical framework evokes the idea of something rigid and separating, like the fence around the garden. The research that emerges within the framework is dynamic and constantly new. However, to ensure safety, it is placed in an ethical framework that sets clear boundaries for what researchers are allowed to do in their work.
The article questions not only the image of ethical frameworks as static boundaries for dynamic research activities. Inspired by ideas within so-called responsible research and innovation (RRI), the image that research can be separated from ethics and society is also questioned.
Researchers tend to regard research as their own concern. However, there are tendencies towards increasing collaboration not only across disciplinary boundaries, but also with stakeholders such as patients, industry and various forms of extra-scientific expertise. These tendencies make research an increasingly dispersed, common concern. Not only in retrospect in the form of applications, which presupposes that the research effort can be separated, but already when research is initiated, planned and carried out.
This could sound threatening, as if foreign powers were influencing the free search for truth. Nevertheless, there may also be something hopeful in the development. To see the hopeful aspect, however, we need to free ourselves from the image of ethical frameworks as static boundaries, separate from dynamic research.
With examples from the Human Brain Project, Arleen Salles and Michele Farisco try to show how ethical challenges in neuroscience projects cannot always be controlled in advance, through declared principles, values and guidelines. Even ethical work is dynamic and requires living intelligent attention. The authors also try to show how ethical attention reaches all he way into the neuroscientific issues, concepts and working conditions.
When research on the human brain is not aware of its own cultural and societal conditions, but takes them for granted, it may mean that relevant questions are not asked and that research results do not always have the validity that one assumes they have.
We thus have good reasons to see ethical and societal reflections as living parts of neuroscience, rather than as rigid frameworks around it.
Scientific discovery is based on the novelty of the questions you ask. This means that if you want to discover something new, you probably have to ask a different question. And since different people have different preconceptions and experiences than you, they are likely to formulate their questions differently. This makes a case for diversity in research, If we want to make new discoveries that concern diverse groups, diversity in research becomes even more important.
The Human Brain Project participated in the FENS 2020 Virtual Forum this summer, an international virtual neuroscience conference that explores all domains in modern brain research. For the Human Brain Project (HBP), committed to responsible research and innovation, this includes diversity. Which is why Karin Grasenick, Coordinator for Gender and Diversity in the HBP, explored the relationship between diversity and new discovery in the session “Of mice, men and machines” at the FENS 2020.
So why is diversity in research crucial to make new discoveries? Research depends on the questions asked, the models used, and the details considered. For this reason, it is important to reflect on why certain variables are analysed, or which aspects might play a role. An example is Parkinson’s disease, where patients are affected differently depending on both age and gender. Being a (biological) man or woman, old or young is important for both diagnosis and treatment. If we know that diversity matters in research on Parkinson’s disease, it probably should do so in most neuroscience. Apart from gender and age, we also need to consider other aspects of diversity, like race, ethnicity, education or social background. Because depending on who you are, biologically, culturally and socially, you are likely to need different things.
A quite recent example for this is Covid-19, which does not only display gender differences (as it affects more men than women), but also racial differences: Black and Latino people in the US have been disproportionately affected, regardless of their living area (rural or urban) or their age (old or young). Again, the reasons for this are not simply biologically essentialist (e.g. hormones or chromosomes), but also linked to social aspects such as gendered lifestyles (men are more often smokers than women), inequities in the health system or certain jobs which cannot be done remotely (see for example this BBC Future text on why Covid-19 is different for men and women or this one on the racial inequity of coronavirus in The New York Times).
Another example is Machine Learning. If we train AI on data that is not representative of the population, we introduce bias in the algorithm. For example, applications to diagnose skin cancer in medicine more often fail to recognize tumours in darker skin correctly because they are trained using pictures of fair skin. There are several reasons for not training AI properly, it could be a cost issue, lack of material to train the AI on, but it is not unlikely that people with dark skin are discriminated because scientists and engineers simply did not think about diversity when picking material for the AI to train on. In the case of skin cancer, it is clear that diversity could indeed save lives.
But where to start? When you do research, there are two questions that must be asked: First, what is the focus of your research? And second, who are the beneficiaries of your research?
Whenever your research focus includes tissues, cells, animals or humans, you should consider diversity factors like gender, age, race, ethnicity, and environmental influences. Moreover, any responsible scientist should consider who has access to their research and profits from it, as well as the consequences their research might have for end users or the broader public.
However, as a researcher you need to consider not only the research subjects and the people your results benefit. The diversity of the research team also matters, because different people perceive problems in different ways and use different methods and processes to solve them. Which is why a diverse team is more innovative.
This is a guest blog post from the Human Brain Project (HBP). The HBP as received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under the Specific Grant Agreement No. 945539 (Human Brain Project SGA3).
The covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to work online from home. The change contained surprises, both positive and negative. We learned that it is possible to have digital staff meetings, seminars and coffee breaks, and that working from home can sometimes mean less interference than working in the office. We also discovered how much better the office chair and desk are, how difficult it is to try to be professional online from an untidy home, and that working from home often means more interference than working in the office!
The European Human Brain Project (HBP) has extensive experience of collaborating digitally, with regular online meetings. This is how they worked long before the pandemic struck, since the project is a collaboration between more than 100 partner institutions in almost 20 countries, also outside Europe. As part of the project’s investment in responsible research and innovation, special efforts are now being made to digitally include everyone, when so much of the work has moved to the internet.
In the Journal of Responsible Technology, Karin Grasenick and Manuel Guerrero from HBP formulate recommendations based on experiences from the project. Their recommendations concern four areas: How do we facilitate social and family life? How do we reduce stress and anxiety? How do we handle career stages, roles and responsibilities? How do we support team spirit and virtual cooperation?
Read the concise article! You will recognize your work situation and be inspired by the suggestions. Even after the pandemic, online collaboration will occur.
Karin Grasenick, Manuel Guerrero, Responsible Research and Innovation& Digital Inclusiveness during Covid-19 Crisis in the Human Brain Project (HBP), Journal of Responsi-ble Technology(2020), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrt.2020.06.001
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!