13 December 2022 News

Embedding Responsible Research and RSSR in South Africa – an Opinion Piece by Dr Rosarii Griffin

This past week, the World Science Forum (WSF), recently took place in Cape Town, South Africa attracting thousands of delegates from 141 countries all around the world. In fact, it was the first the World Science Forum was held on the African continent. The title of the conference was ‘World Science for Social Justice’ was fitting and heralds a new era for science and scientific research in Africa, supporting a new generation of researchers, scientists and related policy makers emerging with the rapid growth and development evidenced on the African continent, but in South Africa in particular. One of the key side-sessions organised in the run up to the main conference sessions was on ‘Scientific freedom and the RRING Community working with UNESCO on the Recommendation on Science & Scientific Researchers (RSSR)’. This session was very well attended and attracted a wide audience of upcoming researchers, scientists and policymakers.

The term ‘RSSR’ is a policy document proposed by UNESCO supporting the co-creation of responsible research for a more sustainable future. One organization that has been supporting UNESCO’s drive is ICORSA, an ‘International Consortium of Researcher Staff Associations’. Recently, ICORSA led an EU-funded project ‘RRING’, Responsible Research and Innovation Networked Globally, which sought to instill ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI) principles into the work of scientists. The South African NRF (National Research Foundation), through its science engagement business unit, SAASTA, South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, was also a key partner in this project, from which emerged ‘the RRING Community’. The RRING community embodied a group of researchers (entities, organisations and/or individual researchers), who embrace strong ethical principles when researching or applying research, but also this RRING community work closely with UNESCO to support RSSR Recommendations, overseeing that these principles are adopted and implemented by researchers all over the world to ensure the future of scientific research for the betterment of the planet, society and mankind. This RRING community is composed of policy-makers, civil society, academics and industry partners, otherwise known as ‘The Quadruple Helix’.

This WSF ICORSA-NRF led session thus set about exploring current models and frameworks for scientific freedom. In particular, it explored the work of H2020 project ‘RRING’ on this topic. The session highlighted its work with UNESCO on the RSSR, which embodies principles of Scientific Freedom. In other words, the RSSR framework aims to promote a fair and appropriate status for scientific researchers. The RSSR framework also informs national science, technology and innovation policies, ensuring that society uses knowledge (from all scientific fields) in a responsible manner. Scientific freedom is at the core of the RSSR.

Core to the aims and aspirations of ICORSA, the UNESCO RSSR recommendations also promote the lives and rights of researchers, ‘to work in a spirit of intellectual freedom to pursue, expound’ and to ‘defend the scientific truth as they see it, an intellectual freedom which should include protection from undue influences on their independent judgement’.

RSSR principles also recommend that researchers be allowed to ‘express themselves freely and openly on the ethical, human, scientific, social or ecological value of certain projects’. It further stipulates that these principles should ‘ensure the protection of the human rights, fundamental freedoms and dignity of the human person, and the confidentiality of personal data’. The RSSR document also protects the scientific researchers’ right to publish or communicate results. However, RSSR goes further, and wishes to provide scientific researchers with proper career development prospects and facilities within their employment circumstances, as well as to provide ‘the necessary funds and mechanisms for, career development, and/or redeployment. This is also core to the work of ICORSA, and ICORSA’s offshoot organization, the RRING community which is composed of over 1000 members.

The overall project aim of the RRING community is to bring RRI into global networks and organisations, to promote mutual learning and collaboration in RRI. The RRING community itself aligns with RRI with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UNESCO RSSR is a common denominator and global Framework, and expression of these aspirations.

At the ICORSA-NRF led session, the panel discussed the barriers researchers experience in exercising freedom and discussed how RSSR can be enabled as a practical instrument for researchers’ freedom. This side session also explored the global issue of researcher career security and how to make researchers careers less precarious and more sustainable. Other topics discussed included areas such as ‘how do funders and funding organisations influence Scientific Freedom’ and ‘how can funders and funding organisations (such as the NRF) use the RRING tools in their 4 yearly UNESCO review reports applying RSSR?’ for instance. Case study countries explored included Lithuania and Serbia. This was critical, as South Africa is undertaking its own 4 yearly RSSR review shortly.

This ICORSA side session was very well attended by researchers, post-graduate students, funders and policy makers. The session was chaired and moderated by the Secretary of ICORSA, Dr Rosarii Griffin (UCC, Ireland). The ensuing discussion was led by ICORSA Chair, Dr Gordon Dalton (Plocan Unversity, Gran Canaria, Spain) who was also the PI of the EU-RRING-ICORSA led project. Leading contributing participants included: Ms Juliana Chaves Chaparro, UNESCO – Social and Human Sciences Sector (Paris, France). Highly esteemed colleague Shadrack Mkansi (NRF-SAASTA), presented a very welcome session on the South Africa case study in RRING project. Other notable contributors included Dr Reda Cimmperman, (Research Council of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania), who presented the Lithuanian case study in RRING project and Mr Bojan Kenig (Center for Promotion of Science Belgrade, Serbia) who presented the Serbia case study in RRING project. The final presenter was Dr Eric Jensen (UNESCO contractor), who presented the SiDA Project, 7 country case study, which was well received.

The workshop and discussion which ensued led by Dr Gordon Dalton (Chair, ICORSA) discussed the theme of the South Africa country case study in RRING including areas such as the kind of tools South Africa (SA) would use for the next round of the RSSR review; who will be on the South Africa Working Group, and if whether or not South Africa would engage with the RRING community vis-à-vis grassroots feedback and input. Overall, the input from the audience, panel and participants was very encouraging. Given the level of interest and participation, one has to say that the future looks very bright indeed for RSSR and RRI in South Africa and the African continent as a whole.

Opinion piece by Dr Rosarii Griffin, Secretary ICORSA, Email rosarii.griffin@ucc.ie Tel: + 353 86 1952551. with the assistance of Dr Gordon for his input on this piece. Thanks especially to the NRF team (Mr Shadrach Mkansi, Ms Duduzile Kubheka & Ms Bafedile Kgwadi), other speakers, and the ICORSA team for organising.