RI….what does it mean and to whom?

A few weeks ago I was at a meeting discussing responsible research and innovation(RRI) and I had to keep checking what individuals meant when they were talking about RI. For some in the room (myself included) RI was shorthand for ‘research integrity’, but for others it meant ‘research and innovation’. Neither is wrong but they do mean very different things so here is what I think each of these terms mean and what makes them different?

I will start with ‘research integrity’ because I am more familiar with it and I use it as an umbrella term encompassing three core aspects that affect how an individual conducts their research:

  1. The research framework.
  2. Openness and transparency
  3. Research outputs.

The first (research framework) relates to everything that influences local research cultures, as well as the actions, thoughts and deeds of individual researchers. This includes legislation, policies and guidance at a national or international level; as well as at a departmental, organisational, or research community level. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of research framework type documents out there, most of which will say everything we hope they would in terms of requiring, promoting or supporting good research practices and the responsible conduct of research. The issue – it seems to me – is that there are unspoken conflicts that affect how well the words within these key documents get translated into the daily practice, routines and the realities of research life.

The second core aspect (openness and transparency) is about how research is communicated by individuals and research organisations – both within the scientific community and more broadly to ‘the general public’. Growing importance has been placed on openness and transparency in the conduct and communication of research because, over recent years some surveys have suggested that certainly within biomedical disciplines trust in science, and support for research is waning and can no longer guaranteed1,2. Increasing awareness both within and outside the scientific community of the slow rate of scientific progress in preventing or curing many of the big killer’s has had a part to play in this, but that is not the whole story.

The third aspect (research outputs) is very much related to openness and transparency. These days, research outputs are no longer simply peer reviewed research papers. Data sets, methods and protocols, as well as novel research models, reagents and research materials are all valued products of scientific research. Sadly, over recent years, the quality of published research outputs has been increasingly called into question across pretty much all research disciplines. Issues have been highlighted regarding the reporting of research, experimental design, statistical analysis and the sharing of data, as well as the impact of publication bias and other biases. Let us be clear: the content of my blogs is biased. That does not mean it is valueless, but I am only talking about the things that are important to me. Alas, the biases, conscious or subconscious, that all communicators have are not always so easy for audiences to identify and herein lies another part of the problem. The growing concern that is being expressed regarding the unreproducible, or unreliable and poor quality of research being conducted is, at least in part, contributing to the impression that scientific research for many years been over promising and under delivering. What can be done about this? Well we need each and every researcher to take responsibility and be accountable for their own actions. Ignorance is no defence. We are all busy people and if they do not recognise or take the time they need to identify and understand what research integrity and the responsible conduct of research means in daily practice for themselves then no one else is going to do it for them.

So if research integrity is an umbrella term, what exactly does ‘research and innovation’ mean?

Well, the first thing to note is that I can find no specific definition. What I can tell you is that research and innovation is a very hot topic in the UK right now, since the creation of a new funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was announced back in May3. UKRI as a body will bring “together the 7 Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research funding functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).  In contrast elsewhere within Europe RRI has a very specific meaning embedded within the “science with and for society” objective of the EU Framework Horizon 2020 programme4.  “Responsible Research and Innovation is a dynamic, iterative process by which all stakeholders (policy-makers, researchers, industry and commence, science educators and civil society) involved in the R&I practice become mutually responsive and share responsibility for both the outcomes and processes involved” is the working definition developed by the RRI Tools project that was funded by the European Commision as part of the FP7 program. In other words RRI is about developing a two-way connection that enables researchers to engage with and benefit from the opinions of the public (societies, cultures, people) whose lives it is seeking to improve. It is about delivering on the premise of most publicly funded research – that it is for the greater good – and not simply a self-sustaining activity.

So to summarise – for me Research Integrity is about researchers understanding how to conduct research responsibly, recognising what this means in practice for them as individuals and their ability to make honest and ethical decisions during the course of their work. Research and innovation on the other hand is about researchers identifying, acknowledging and working to resolve issues that matter to Society.

If you like what you have read today, then please do come back again soon. In the meantime, if you would like to know more about the work that I do or if you think we might be able to work together to bring about cultural change then please send me a message via the website today.

References

  1. Attitudes to animal research: A long-term survey of public views 1999-2014. BIS. Sept 2014
  2. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities. Pew Research Center. July 2016
  3. Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choiceBIS. May 2016
  4. The EU Framework programme for Research and Innovation . (2014-2020)
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