Friday 13

A city with a history and a project with a future

Posted by IrsiCaixa and UCL on 13 May 2016

Istanbul’s striking Sultan Ahmed mosque – known as the Blue Mosque for its beautiful tiled interior – built in 1609-16

With the allure of the Grand Bazaar, the splendour of the Blue Mosque, the treasures of the Topkapi Museum, and the smells, tastes and sounds of the city all around you, why on Earth would you spend your time cooped up in a hotel room? Responsible research and innovation!

The international network Public Communication of Science and Technology met last week (April 25-28) in the historic city of Istanbul, where East really does meet West, where Europe meets Asia, and where cultures mingle to produce a vibrancy that rivals anywhere in the World. And the RRI Tools project organized a workshop to explain and train on responsibility in innovation and research that garnered 25 participants from every continent. The workshop – the Role of Science Communication in promoting Responsible Research and Innovation – lasted for half a day on Monday, April 25.

Led by Rosina Malagrida of the IrsiCaixa research institute in Barcelona and Steve Miller of University College London, the workshop delivered understanding of RRI based on RRI Tools definition and project brief, explored the opportunities and challenges involved, and how the Toolkit can help answer some of the key questions in developing research and innovation projects.


Talk to the hat

Steve made use of a recent item on BBC Radio’s “Today” show about developments by American scientist Anthony James and his team in creating genetically modified mosquitoes that were resistant to the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum in the hope that – once released into the wild – these mosquitoes would out-breed their parasite carrying cousins. The BBC interview with malaria scientist, Luke Alphey, whilst being a good piece of straightforward science communication, raised many issues that were central to RRI.

In particular, the research was clearly aimed at tackling grand challenges, such as Health, demographic change and wellbeing and Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials, since climate change could cause the spread of tropical diseases to higher latitudes. Mosquitoes are not known to respect national borders, so the agenda of Governance was raised, as insects released in one country that approved testing these new parasite-resistant strains could cross into countries where such tests were not (yet) legal.

Talk to the Hat – or, in this case, the halo – workshop participants discuss RRI in the role of various stakeholders

And the importance of Anticipation and reflection was discussed as the BBC interviewer asked about “the law of unintended consequences” – could replacing one strain of mosquito with another have outcomes that had not been foreseen and might – perhaps – allow other harmful parasites to flourish? So this simple example of science communication raised many questions that RRI addresses, in a comprehensive and potentially transformational way, for several groups of stakeholders – researchers and policy makerscivil society environmental, health and education organisations and charities, and – if the release of GM mosquitoes was to be commercialized – industry as well.

This introduction, along with the RRI Tools Project Brief (with recent minor updates), laid the basis for participants to “talk to the hat” – take on the persona of one of the stakeholder groups and discuss in pairs what they understood the importance of RRI to be to the stakeholder they were talking to. Judging by the noise in the room, everyone had something interesting to say.


Mining the toolkit

Taking over from the participants’ own discussions, Rosina then amplified the explanation of what RRI means, delving deeper into the RRI Tools definition of responsible research and innovation. She introduced the newly-launched Toolkit to the workshop, explaining how to use the various landing pages and search for useful tools and documents.

Rosina explained how the project had run its own workshops at the end of 2014 to try to identify the opportunities that RRI opened up, as well as some of the obstacles to implementing it, and what was needed to overcome these obstacles.  The work of the project since that time had been to assemble the Toolkit so as to produce solutions to those potential obstacles and enable the opportunities to become reality. She also presented other project outcomes such as the Report on the Quality Criteria of Good Practice Standards on RRI or the Catalogue of Good RRI practices, both developed under the leadership of Athena.

Working in groups, the participants then decided on one or two projects that they wanted to work on, looked for the opportunities and possible obstacles to fulfilling their aspirations, and were given help and advice on how RRI and the toolkit might help them achieve their goals. Projects chosen ranged from how to establish trust in digital world, and confidence in vaccination programmes, to setting up a science festival where the topics would be developed and decided upwards, dealing with issues of local need and importance, rather than being imposed top-down.

Other projects involved governance for the bio-banking of genetic materials, the ethics of deciding on drugs to treat mental illness whose side effects might lead patients into obesity, and the challenges of the brain-computer interface. While it was not possible in a session of just over one hour to answer all of the challenges posed, the general discussion of responsibility in research and innovation, and the use of the toolkit, made it possible for participants to explore previously un-thought-of opportunities and solutions.


Positive response

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Whilst no one underestimated the work that needs to go into making a real change in the relationship between science, innovation and society involved in RRI, the training was generally described as useful, in some cases even excellent. And we will be picking up on several helpful suggestions to develop the training programme in the months ahead.

The coming months will be challenging for RRI Tools as we roll out local and international training workshops. But the work already done by the project means we have an excellent foundation on which to build.

Rosina Malagrida and Steve Miller

Rosina Malagrida works on RRI Tools at the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute in Barcelona, the RRI Tools Hub for Spain and Steve works on RRI Tools at UCL in London, the RRI Tools Hub for United Kingdom.

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