June 17, 2010, more than 80 people from Academia, Industry and policy gathered in Copenhagen to discuss the idea and development of Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR).

This report includes the highlights from the two keynote talks and the three discussion panels that followed.

What is SSR?

The conference took as its starting point the need for a renewed discussion of the social responsibility of research institutions and actors due to the push towards establishing Denmark as a leading knowledge society. As one the organizers, Maja Horst (CBS) said in her opening statement, the conference did not aim to achieve a final definition or consensus on SSR, but rather tried to set the scene for a wider debate of its role and nature.

As indicated already by the large turnout there seems to be general agreement that a discussion and better understanding of what we should understand by SSR is currently needed. To this end, while admitting that he hadn’t previously thought syste-matically about it, Klaus Peter Bøgesø (Lundbeck A/S) pointed out three key aspects of SSR in his keynote

  • any scientist should be able to explain about the possible benefit of his research
  • any scientist has an obligation to pursue valuable results
  • those holding funding power has a responsibility as well
Anticipating that most people, like Bøgesø, had limited experience with addressing SSR explicitly, Alan Irwin (CBS) took upon him to provide part of a historical as well as contemporary perspective on SSR. In his keynote he explained that historically speaking we are in the midst of a third wave of SSR – a wave characterized by its concern with
  • scientific and technological uncertainties, and
  • the attempt to deal with the increasing gap and loss of trust between institutions and researchers by means of openness and transparency

Thus, what was particularly interesting about the two keynotes was that taken together they came to illustrate a crucial feature of the current intellectual environment that most people attending could recognize. Though SSR is rarely explicitly addressed and discussed in between peers, most researchers seem well to recognize the historical trajectory of SSR and take their individual scientific social responsibility seriously in the daily scientific practice. But what’s all the fuzz about then?

SSR and the Daily Scientific Practice

Though the individual scientist may in general take his or her scientific social responsibility serious, the conference made clear that it is far from certain that he or she are capable of meeting the challenges they currently face in their daily scientific practice as individuals.

First of all, Prof. Lene Koch from University of Copenhagen told that her extensive experience as a social scientist had taught her that while the best tool for securing robust knowledge in the daily scientific practice is dialogue based on the close scrutiny of qualified external observers, such dialogue is in between scientists is different than talking to the public. In the scientific practice we encounter alternative ideas of responsibility and ethics. Thus, while dialogue may be used to develop existing views in a positive way, it also raises the fundamental question of what responsibility is and who’s notion we are to use. Obviously, resolving such questions lies outside the ability of the individual scientist and the bounds of their daily scientific practices.

But even if researchers did as well as for those that do take up the challenge of thinking systematically and working seriously with SSR as part of the daily practice obstacles remain. As Prof. Mark Bedau, Director of ISSP pointed out, the surrounding institutional structures do not encourage or reward such work. Thus,traditions and incentives need to be changed in ways that once again transcends the ability of the individual scientist.

But perhaps the most pressing challenge occupying the minds of those present at the conference – i.e. people picking up the challenge of thinking about SSR despite the lack of encouragement – seemed to be the increasing gap of distrustbetween politicians and academia.

“A lot of money has been taken away from academia.
Politicians don’t trust academia. It’s a challenge.”

– Klaus Peter Bøgesø, Lundbeck A/S

In particular, this challenge is a difficult one, since as several comments from the audience revealed this gap of distrust often presents itself in contradictories. For instance, as Prof. of Physics Steen Rasmussen from SDU pointed out, while the demand for science communication has been increasing at the political level, so has the unmotivated dismissal of expertise at the very same level. Such challenges are obviously such that the individual researcher cannot meet them alone or change the premises upon which they rest.

But even if such profound challenges of conceptual clarification, changing incentive structures and reconciling politicians and academia should be resolves, a well working academic world presents some inherently difficult problems. AsPeter Krogsgaard-Larsen (Carlsberg Foundation) pointed out, very few scientists are capable of controlling the large process demanded for converting their basic scientific discoveries into knowledge of social utility. Thus, even in an ideal daily scientific practice good academic leadership is key.

Thus, the message that we get about SSR at the micro-level seems clear. If we want to incorporate SSR – however, we are to understand this – into the daily scientific practice, the institutional environment holds the key when facing the challenges we currently face in what Alan Irwin coined as the third wave of SSR. In other words, SSR goes far beyond the researchers ‘speaking up’ and taking individual responsibility. Thus, it made much sense that the conference continued with a panel focusing on the meso-level.

SSR and the Impact on Research Management

Like Alan Irwin, Prof. Erik V. Thomsen from (DTU) had noted in the first panel, that SSR is not a new thing. But to this the latter also pointed out that SSR is to some extent already implemented at the institutional level as various rules and guidelines. Thus, the next step, he argued, is to to look at and learn from good examples of projects. Still, one thing he was sure of was that many projects are too short-sighted. Thus, one thing that is needed is perspectives longer than three years.

Prof. Flemming Besenbacher from University of Aarhus pursued this perspective by focusing on some of the huge challenges the world is facing today. To deal with those challenges to SSR at the meso-level, as well as facilitating SSR itself at this level, he suggested a list of measures to be taken which echoed the first panel quite accurate:

  • research managers should invest in basic fundamental science 
  • hire the best people
  • educate the next generation of excellent talented young scientists
  • stimulate collaborative efforts and at the same time allow each scientist to achieve a desired level of individual scientific performance and development
  • facilitate better interaction with industrial stakeholders

However, Lars H. Pedersen who spoke on behalf of Bioneer A/S, emphasized that in his opinion such measures for securing SSR at the institutional level should work as ‘roadmaps’ – i.e. as a middle-road between unrestricted scientific freedom as we know it and a too strictly regulated freedom that otherwise could come to replace it and end up in what he called ‘SSR-bingo’.

“What could be the faith of SSR? A set of good standards maybe?
But it could also turn into what I would call SSR-bingo.”

 Lars H. Pedersen, Bioneer A/S

But as Prof. and Vice-dean of Aalborg University Lene Lange pointed out, SSR-bingo is not the only danger facing the implementation of SSR at the institutional level. She argued for the need to define SSR broadly enough so that we do not end up forgetting those stakeholders in our scientific endeavours that do not possess a direct voice in the debate. In particular we should be careful not to forget the 3rd world countries while prioritizing the economic and strategic interest of our own developed countries. After all, as she noted,

“… feeding the world is more important than fuelling the world.”

– Lene Lange, vice-deanAalborg University

The discussion of this issue as well as the discussion of how to implement SSR institutionally during the 2nd panel discussion served well as a bridge to the third and final panel discussion about the macro-level.

SSR, Policy and the National Regulation of Science

In the third and final panel discussion David Gee, senior advisor at the European Environmental Agency, followed up on Lene Lange’s point about being careful about getting the scope of SSR right. Thus, he emphasizing that what one takes SSR to be will ultimately depend on your point of view. To him, for instance, ‘irresponsible science’ was science that harms the planet. He then listed some general aspects of SSR two of which were:

  • Admit the ignorance towards SSR
  • Don’t shoot the messenger

Hans M. Pedersen, vice-director of Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation quickly took David Gee’s points upon him as he began by admitting that the agency has no formal strategy on SSR, although many in the audience took the slogan ‘from thought to invoice’ to be exactly that. He then agued against the fundamental premises upon which the debate about SSR had been conducted since to him there seemed to be no real division between science and the social. Quoting US policy-makers his perspective was that science should always carries a social responsibility because

“… unless science improves the human condition,
it will be of no use to society”

Hans M. Pedersenvice-director of the Danish
Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation

This immediately opened a wide-ranging discussion where it seemed that some had to remind themselves of David Gee’s point that one ought not to shoot the messenger. But moreover it emphasized the following points made by Prof. and Dean of Research at CBS, Alan Irwin:

  • “we should remember that scientific social responsibility goes both ways… thus it might end up changing our priorities,” and
  • “don’t see SSR as a threat but as an opportunity for a country like Denmark.”

Thus, more than anything this 3rd panel had some of the general points of the day re-emerging. It showed once again that SSR like any other responsibility is a two-way relationship presupposing not only dialogue, but also agreement on perspective as well as trust. While the conference definitely succeeded in its declared purpose by facilitating a dialogue giving voice to many different perspectives on SSR, it also made clear some of the most important challenges we face: the need to discuss these perspectives much further as well as the urgent need to close the gap of trust that has opened between policy-makers and the academic world. Only then may Denmark become a leading knowledge society.