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Science with and for Society

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Over the course of the 21st century, Europe has been experimenting with new paradigms of science. Starting with a conversation between institutions and leaders of science with citizenry, science and society, the focus began to shift to science for society. At this juncture, the thrust was to make science—especially ‘high’ science—understandable to citizens of Europe. Science communication centres and networks became active across Europe. Partnerships between researchers and societal problems received support from the European Union over the past decade and ‘science shops’ became a regular part of many European universities.

In the Horizon 2020 programme, focus has expanded to ‘science with society’. The new manifestation is labelled as ‘responsible research & innovation’ (RRI).

A vast network of researchers, institutions and actors has become associated with this new thrust. Nearly 200 of them assembled in Brussels last week to share experiences in promoting RRI in their countries/regions, and an impressive collection of RRI Tools has been documented (www.rri-tools.eu/final-conference).

It is heartening to see museums, science centres and science communicators engage with this process of promoting the awareness and practice of RRI in Europe. The ‘science with society’ movement is gaining momentum in Europe as high school students, women scholars, research councils and university systems are deeply engaging in elaborating a new approach to research that is responsible, relevant, accountable and just. Gender equality, authentic public engagement, open access and transparent multi-stakeholder system of governance are key features of this new approach in Europe.

As conversations and stories in Brussels began to indicate, ‘science with society’ is a radical paradigmatic shift from the current system of funding, doing and monitoring science, not just in Europe, but around the world. It implies significant ‘power shifts’ inside research institutions so that younger women scholars are respected, encouraged and given research coordination responsibilities. It is a ‘power shift’ in ways that scientists acknowledge that other valuable forms, modes and sites of knowledge production exist  in society, and must be respected.

Institutions of science, fraternities and academies of science and funders of science have to come to terms with the challenge of major ‘culture shifts’ in their own establishments and mindsets, if RRI has to be mainstreamed.

It is how the present science establishment responds to this set of challenges of ‘power and culture shifts’ that will determine the future of RRI in Europe, and indeed ‘science for and with society’ in much of the world.

Dr Rajesh Tandon                 November 27, 2016

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