It can sometimes be difficult to visualise the long-term benefits – or consequences – of scientific advances. This is especially true in topical and widely impactful fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) or climate change research.
Furthermore, research can entail ethical issues that can be difficult to balance with the potential benefits. For example, animal use in medical research and types of AI that need personal data to train models both raise ethical questions. Given the exponential development of technology, the impact of AI, and the urgent need to address our impact on the global climate, it is increasingly important to make sure ethical and long-term considerations are incorporated into research. This requires an open dialogue between scientists and the public.
The goal of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), a priority of Horizon 2020 (the EU Research and Innovation programme for 2014-2020), was to make sure that research was aligned with the needs and views of society, from the point of design through to the implementation. It aimed to promote a dialogue between researchers, businesses, policy-makers, NGOs, and citizens, and to incorporate foresight into science to mitigate any unintended consequences of a potentially beneficial new technology. Alongside the science itself, RRI supports an ethical research culture and community with principles such as promoting open access data, science education, as well as gender equality in research.
Co-Change: an innovative systemic approach to boost the transformative capacity for responsible research through change labs.
There are many initiatives specifically geared towards RRI that are funded through Horizon 2020 across the EU. Many of these are still ongoing now that the next EU research programme, Horizon Europe (2021-2027), has begun. These range into many fields, from Robots in assisted living environments to serious gaming and many more. One is the Co-Change project, which is establishing a network of researchers and implementing sustainable changes in research practices from within partner institutions through “change labs”. These labs are platforms for researchers to open dialogues with each other and with their institutions in order to integrate ethical principles of RRI into the fundamental design of their work.
Sven Schlarb, Austrian Institute of Technology: “The Co-Change project combines researchers who think about ethical principles with projects that integrate these principles into their work. As such, responsible research, not only the monitoring function, is brought into the design-phase.” – Read the full interview
Analysing the dark web using AI, ensuring privacy and accounting for biases.
AI has garnered immense attention in recent times in the media and in the policy world. This incredibly powerful technology has potential to bring great benefits to society, improving things from cybersecurity to sustainable agriculture. But it is not without its challenges, some which are particularly pertinent to RRI. For example, AI can entail an uneven distribution of costs and benefits throughout society and its reliability and performance can sometimes be overblown. AI research is therefore a field in which RRI considerations must feature prominently during every phase from design to implementation in order to ensure that its products ultimately benefit society.
Al also comes with questions of ethics and privacy, as it often requires large amounts of data to produce accurate results. The question of ownership of this data is complex, and touches many sectors from precision agriculture to deepfakes, and particularly in types of AI research that deal with criminal behaviour. One example of this is natural language processing, a form of AI that searches text for particular words or phrases to extract meaningful information. Sven Schlarb, a member of the Co-Change project, works in the Centre for Digital Safety and Security at the Austrian Institute of Technology. His team works with law enforcement on a Horizon 2020-funded project called COPKIT (information extraction & machine learning techniques) to identify potential criminal behaviour on the dark net.
Sven Schlarb: “Data can be gathered and analysed using AI. But, while there are certainly people who go to the dark net to buy drugs, there are others who simply go there to sell their washing machine. Monitoring everything would mean observing people and collecting information on people who might not doing anything illegal. For our research we therefore focus on use cases that avoid the use of personal data.”
In this case, the approach is straightforward: pseudonymising data by automatically replacing letters and numbers with others to avoid leaking personal information. Privacy issues must be addressed from the beginning of the design of the research, a principle of the Co-Change project. In COPKIT, they have an ethical legal privacy team involved from the beginning.
Sometimes there are problems not just with the data, but with the model itself. To detect patterns, AI models are trained on databases, but these can contain hidden systematic biases that are encoded into language, which can mean the model itself is unintentionally biased. These biases can include gender bias or even racism, for example in profession types. Detecting and balancing these biases is difficult, so being aware and actively looking for solutions are key. Involving a multi-disciplinary team can also help identify potential issues from many perspectives.
Sven Schlarb: “What I would like to see is that research is inter-disciplinary, and that we think about how ethical principles can be formalised and used as an integral part to support AI from a technical perspective. Additionally, these formalised ethical principles can be used to correct AI decisions that are wrong.”
Gender balance in the scientific community.
RRI not only deals with topic-specific ethical issues, but also issues within the scientific community at large. It is well-known that there are historical and cultural gender imbalances in scientific careers. Despite this, in 2015, 50% registered researchers in Serbia were women, an impressive feat! Still, according to Dr Branislava Lalic, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Novi Sad, “I am aware that on a European level, […] 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.”
But as part of their RRI activities, Lalic and her team researched the glass ceiling effect in their institution with surprising results. They found that very few female colleague of the institution felt they were not able to apply to management positions due to their gender. Rather, they were simply not interested in these positions, often because they felt they could contribute better to society as a researcher than having extra leadership responsibilities. This then raises the question: is this really an issue that should be addressed?
That’s not to say there are not other systemic issues related to gender in scientific careers. Lalic aims to tackle broader gender issues within research.
Branislava Lalic, associate professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Novi Sad: “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.” – Read the full interview
Implementing sustainable change
RRI is a broad term involving many different aspects of ethics in science from privacy to management, but also open access, outreach, communication, and fostering a healthy research culture. EU projects such as Co-Change offer the possibility to introduce systemic changes in the way research is conducted by integrating these principles in the community mentality and providing opportunities for dialogue.
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.”
“[Co-Change] is a perfect opportunity [for younger colleagues] 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.”