A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Branislava Lalic about responsible research and innovation in the EU

Interview with Branislava Lalic, associate professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Novi Sad.

What does RRI mean to you, and how is it a part of your research environment?

Branislava Lalic: From my point of view, RRI is a way of living. In an ideal world, we would not need RRI actions and key performance indicators, etc. It has always been a very important part of my research and my approach to science and society; I just didn’t know about it until 2018.

My relation to RRI is strongly related to my social and national background. I was born and bred in SFR Yugoslavia more than 50 years ago where public engagement and communication of scientific results to specialised and general public was the norm. There was reserved time on national TV and radio, and gender equality and national/racial diversity were protected and secured by law, as was the participation of women in politics, top medical positions, and science. Technically it was not possible to have gender issues. Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that it was ideal, but we were educated and raised towards this ideal situation that was part of the system.

Then we had ten rough years since 1991. A decade of isolation changed society as a whole and every single member of it. We took many steps backwards with respect to RRI as a society and research community. We entered the XXI century in a less-than-admirable condition. Everything was derogated, including research infrastructure and research human potential. Many young colleagues were raised in some sort of isolation. Imagine a young person of 10-20 with no contact with the outside world. It was quite difficult to explain to them the principles of ethics, equality, knowledge sharing, and innovation. But we did our best.

How is Co-Change is contributing to RRI in your institution?

Branislava Lalic: We have now reached the moment in which projects like Co-Change fit perfectly. For us senior researchers it provides a way to learn how to communicate forgotten skills, knowledge, and values to younger people and society. For younger colleagues, it is a perfect opportunity to learn how to improve aspects of their scientific work and communication with other colleagues, raise awareness about certain scientific topics and help them communicate science with their peers. To make it a norm again. We were so backwards as a society, including in our scientific environment, and now we are going forward again.

How does ethics play into the field of meteorology and climate change, do you feel a strong involvement of ethical responsibility?

Branislava Lalic: In terms of science, our research group and environment follow these principles almost by definition. It is our way of researching and living. Not all my colleagues share this sentiment, but my wider research environment is absolutely in this line. In some topics related to RRI, it is difficult to even identify problems. That’s not to say we don’t deal with ethical issues as members of the research community in general.

One interesting thing related to women’s participation in projects is that from statistics in 2015, 50% of registered researchers in Serbia were women. In fact, in our research group our researchers are largely women. But that’s the fact, commonly ladies seem to apply to research positions in the fields of meteorology, physics, chemistry and some fields of agronomy.

I am aware that on a European level, there are issues that need to be solved related to female participation in institutional management. Members of the advisory boards of research institutions are often men, which is not just a gender issue; it is a diversity issue, and an issue of scientific policy of the institution. If rules are transparent, anyone can apply, and if voting is anonymous, then surely the situation should be different.

We researched whether there is in fact a glass ceiling in our institution, and we actually concluded that there are some gaps. The number of women in top academic positions is quite low compared to the number of women in academia. We also found that at the highest managing positions, there were only about 20% of women involved, a huge gap. But we – Co-Change lab members – had individual talks with female colleagues and most of them had the impression that their gender is not an obstacle in applying for a management position. However most of them, myself included, are not interested in these types of positions. I think I can do something better and contribute more from where I am now than as dean or minister for science and education, and this is a sentiment that many of my colleagues share. This then raises the question: is this really an issue that we should address? I think that the solution to this issue needs to be tailor-made because there are huge differences among countries and institutions.

What are your RRI goals?

Branislava Lalic: I have local and global goals. Locally, I would like to expand our RRI group. We already had a well-established group before Co-Change, which in fact is what led us to Co-Change. We would like to extend this to the whole university, bringing more people together. I believe we have the capacity to improve on important topics particularly open data, gender equality, public engagement, participation in policy, and science education.

We have also introduced topics that, though not part of RRI, we consider important for our society like the generation gap issue. There is a huge difference in communication techniques between people in their 50s and in their 20s. For example, many of my colleagues in their 50s and 60s don’t have social media accounts; they only use email. The younger generation is completely different. We need to find a way to fill this gap because we need to work together.

Another topic I would like to deal with is the broader gender issue in science and beyond, which knowledge and experience gathered during the Co-Change project motivated me to devote more time to. I have the impression that there is a huge “misunderstanding” in the community that slows progress in solving the problem of gender issues in science. For example, in traditional societies, women are responsible for housework and raising kids. But it is challenging to have a scientific career at the same time and compete with male colleagues, which is not fair. This is a much more societal issue that institutional or governmental, it is rooted in the way of thinking of both men and women. But it is changing. Slowly, but it is changing.

One aspect of the co-change project is to include RRI principles from the very beginning of a project, including from the funding stage. How do you think this should be addressed?

Branislava Lalic: I think questions about RRI should not be explicitly indicated in proposals, because people will write anything to get a grant. It is then quite difficult to follow up on whether this is really part of the research. It should be an institutional change of work or performance, not just a criterion. A finer way of promoting real RRI is through key performance indicators that should be introduced in grant proposals, not just addressing RRI as a concept. Through these traceable indicators, we should be able to determine if the proposal is really RRI oriented or not, and we can then better conclude and follow through on how RRI is addressed.

What is your view on the societal/ethical responsibilities of researchers?

Branislava Lalic: We researchers need to do a better job of communicating with the public, because we need society to embrace research to make it effective. It is important to keep in mind that scientists generally do not like public speaking. We never talk about results before they are tested and confirmed multiple times.

Social networks on the other hand are flooded with statements, and often it is not possible to confirm the real source of published information. Nonetheless, the general public, including the media, accept them as truth and regularly confront scientific results as if it is correct to compare the opinion of one non-professional and professional person. Of course, anyone can have an opinion about a particular topic, but for example my opinion about vaccine efficacy is not equally as important as the opinion of an immunologist. The latest experiences related to societal and ethical topics during COVID-19 pandemics are horrifying. Climate change is of course another example. So, we need to spend more time educating the general public, i.e. our own societies because the research is useless if society does not embrace it.

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