Thursday 28

RRI in the Netherlands: public engagement versus talent-show-democracy

Posted by the Athena Institute on 28 May 2015

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a notoriously complex governance framework for research and innovation (R&I). It encompasses various aspects, better known by their EC-name as key dimensions: governance, ethics, gender, public engagement, science education and open access. Multifarious as this list may be, the core idea that distinguishes so-called Responsible R&I from R&I simpliciter is that the former is done with an eye to societal challenges, and that in doing so it takes on board the lessons of decades of research on the governance of science, the relationship between science and society and, more specifically, the role of science in solving complex societal issues.

These lessons, again, are of course manifold, but in short they can be boiled down to a relatively short list of RRI-commandments: include, reflect, adapt and be open!

In some European countries more than in others, the governance culture and institutional arrangements surrounding R&I are already accommodated to these. The Netherlands, for instance, is probably a forerunner in many respects. Engaging lay-people in defining the research agenda, to name one thing that is typically associated with doing RRI, has for instance been experimented with on a rather large scale in the Netherlands, for instance through organizations such as the Lung Fund or the Burns Foundation. The assessment of the ethical, legal and social significance of scientific and technological developments is a focal point of the Rathenau Institute, which reports immediately to the Dutch parliament. And the institutionalization of science trickling down to politics is best illustrated by the WRR, the Scientific Council for Government Policy. All in all, the Netherlands might well be considered a guiding example where RRI is concerned.

However, while RRI is gaining traction in Brussels and beyond, in the Netherlands science policy runs the risk of falling behind. For about two years, the debate on and in academia has been in the grip of two issues, apparently both resulting from academia's flawed reward system. As this is based almost exclusively on publication records, it, firstly, leads science to become ever more esoteric, closed off from the rest of society and societal needs and, secondly, results in assessing science on almost purely quantitative measures, rather than in terms of the quality delivered.

RRI has surely something to say where these issues are concerned. It offers a framework that simultaneously encompasses quality indicators for research as well as guidelines for engaging all sorts of publics in defining research agendas and securing that science is more societally relevant.

One of the central pillars in the new Dutch science policy, one that is to mend the problems of quantity over quality and scientific esotericism, is the "national science agenda". As the name suggests, the idea is that a Dutch research agenda is given shape, and that it is to be based on suggestions collected from throughout society. Anyone, from individual scientists to ordinary citizens and from corporate consortia to NGOs, had the opportunity to send in questions science should answer to the "knowledge coalition" in charge of compiling the agenda. More than 11.000 questions have been collected in this way.

Although on first sight this might look like a very inclusive and, therefore, RRI-like procedure for setting the research agenda, the procedure does leave open some room for scepticism. The main reason for this is that after the initial stage of collecting ideas, a "jury" made up solely of scientific experts is invited to make a first selection of questions that are not yet answered, sufficiently topical, academic and promising in terms of potential economic impact, to be taken into consideration. After this stage a broader round of consultation takes place, when in June three conferences are held in which the next step towards the definition of the national science agenda is taken. While one of these conferences concerns "science for science", one "science for society" and one "science for competitiveness", it is an open question whether the first selection round will not exclude too many questions that might yet be unanswered and societally relevant, but not seen as sufficiently challenging from a scientific point of view by the scientific experts who are given a first say.

Rather than drawing from the lessons on how to engage publics in such processes RRI draws on (i.e., rather than looking in the direction the European Commission has chosen to properly embed science in society), thus, it almost looks as if in the Netherlands the government has looked at televised talent shows for an example. Even if thoroughly and honest democratic ideals are at the basis of the organization of the national science agenda, by shaping the procedure as has been done, the Dutch government takes the risk of giving the impression that engaging the public is more a cover-up act of sorts than a task taken seriously and a manifestation of taking responsibility.

Pim Klaassen

Pim Klaassen works on RRI Tools at the Athena Institute in Amsterdam, the RRI Tools Hub coordinator for Netherlands.

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