Richard Smith: What is RRI and was I the wrong Richard Smith?

richard_smith_2014“I’d like to introduce Richard Smith, who is professor of philosophy at Durham University, an expert on epistemology, and chair of several European committees, who will speak on conflict of interest.” These weren’t the exact words that introduced me at the European Union’s conference on SIS-RRI (Science in Society—Responsible Research and Innovation), but they were close. I started with, “I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong Richard Smith, but it’s easily done when there are 5000 of us in London and New York. I am luckily going to speak about conflict of interest.”

Was I the wrong Richard Smith? I’ll never know, and nor probably will the EU. My favoured hypothesis is that they did want me, but when putting together the programme looked up Richard Smiths on the internet, or perhaps more likely on an EU database, and selected the wrong one. But the more I reflect on it the more I like the idea that I am the wrong Richard Smith. I may in future choose to be known as “The Wrong Richard Smith.” It has a ring akin to “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” or “Bob and Roberta Smith,” one person in case you don’t know.

It won’t be only UKIP voters who will note that such a cock up is typical of the EU, particularly when it is enjoying the Italian presidency. I overheard somebody, a Brit, say: “Usually nobody knows why they are at these European meetings, but there is always a grand and glorious aim.” Or, as another Brit said, “The people are so mixed that the meeting has to be conducted at such a high level of generality that nobody ever reads again the documents that are produced.”

But I’m very much in favour of the EU, despite all its errors and excesses. I learnt, in America ironically, why the EU exists: to stop us going to war with each other, as we’d been doing for over a thousand years, with increasingly catastrophic consequences. That seems like a good enough reason on its own to me, but free movement, economic prosperity, and cultural interchanges are all nice to have as well.

Although it’s the sort of thing that would interest me, I’d never heard of RRI, as everybody at the meeting called it. The EU cares so much about it that it has spent €300m to fund studies to understand it better. The meeting in Rome was an attempt to bring the work together and promote its value, and a declaration was produced. In addition, a report tries to bring together the findings of the work and to be more specific by what is meant by RRI.

All this matters because the EU is trying to create the world’s largest knowledge based economy. It wants every member state to spend at least 3% of its GDP on research, a target way ahead of what countries are currently spending. It wants this because it sees selling products and services resulting from knowledge as the only way for Europe to maintain and increase its wealth in a world where competition is increasing from other continents. (The Japanese are now making better single malt whisky than the Scots—the result of knowledge.)

This vision is going to be achieved only if European citizens have what I might loosely call a better relationship with science. At the moment many Europeans are ignorant about science. Worse, they are suspicious of it, as is shown by widespread opposition to genetically modified foods, and anxieties about the use of information and communication technology (think about the collapse of the NHS scheme to use anonymised data from patients, both to improve care and to help Britain’s life sciences). There is even a lobby to ban animal research within the EU, something that will not be compatible with creating the world’s largest knowledge economy.

RRI has been disaggregated into six broad themes.

First comes public engagement—and somehow this has to move way beyond television programmes, scientists giving popular lectures, and exhibitions. The public need to become coproducers of science as they are urged to be coproducers of health. At the moment the response of European citizens to the question: “What level of involvement should citizens have when it comes to decisions about science and technology?” is that 31% want only to be informed, and 6% want neither to be informed nor involved. Some 39% want to be consulted and their opinion considered, and only 12% want to be actively involved (the answer that might be considered crudely as “the right answer”). A probably unpopular 4% want their decisions to be binding, and a Bohemian 1% simply answered “none.” Europe clearly has a way to go with public engagement.

Gender equality is the second part of RRI, and the woman reporting back on the session on gender diversity plaintively observed that all the speakers and most of the audience were women. Men weren’t interested. (I might have been there as I’m interested and was directed to the session, but I was directed wrongly as I was speaking in a parallel session.) At the moment most scientists are men, and scientific leaders are overwhelmingly male. But talent is randomly distributed, and if you want the best talent, as you undoubtedly do, you want equal numbers of men and women.

The next component is formal and informal science education. The number of young people in Europe wanting to study silence is falling, which does not augur well for Europe becoming the leading knowledge economy. Then world rankings of students’ scores on science and maths show that the top seven places are filled by Asian countries, while half of Briton’s either don’t believe or understand evolution. Europe will need some 700 000 more scientists if it is to achieve every country spending 3% of its GDP on research and development. A French professor said that the global number of scientists has risen from 20 000 in 1974 to six million today.

I spoke in the session on research ethics and research integrity, and my message, biased of course to biomedicine, was stark: 85% of research may be wasted; much of what is published is wrong; there’s a major problem with much research not being reproducible; bias is everywhere; and more research than we care to recognise is fraudulent—and yet we don’t have good means to counter it and raise integrity in most European countries. The RRI programme seems so far to have concentrated more on ethics than integrity, and a key message is that it’s time to move from stopping things going wrong to helping things go right.

Uncomfortable as it may be, the EU will need to pay attention to promoting integrity in science, and having better mechanisms for preventing and responding to research misconduct.

The fifth component of RRI is open science, which means transparency in the processes of funding and doing research, and then open access not simply of publications but also of data sets. Increasing numbers of countries are requiring that all research they fund be open access, and there is also progress, although slower, with requiring datasets to be available to all. Yet it seems a paradox to me that in the push for transparency so much peer review—of both grant proposals and manuscripts—continues to be anonymous.

Governance is the final component of RRI, and the five requirements of good governance, says the EU, are openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness, and coherence. Amen.

Full blooded researchers may see the “science of science” and RRI as “typical European flim flam,” but it’s obvious to me that if Europe is to become the world’s largest and most successful knowledge economy then these soft sides of science will be crucially important, not least to ensure support for such a grand aspiration among European citizens.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004. He is now chair of the board of trustees of icddr,b [formerly International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh], and chair of the board of Patients Know Best. He is also a trustee of C3 Collaborating for Health.

Competing interest: RS had his expenses paid to attend the meeting, where he spoke.