The Importance of Transparency

Harald Throne-Holst (SIFO) reflects about transparency as an essential part of Responsible Research and Innovation. "Research needs to be transparent, and that goes for all phases of a project".

In an earlier blog post we have stated that RRI is at the heart of the iResponse-project. Although what RRI entails in more specific terms is still not set in stone, and that is probably a good thing, there appears to be an evolving consensus on some of the term’s constituents. 

What's responsible? What's irresponsible?

There could be several reasons why RRI still has not settled and the operationalization of the term appear more difficult than one maybe would imagine: A call for responsible research and innovation may not look like a too tall or unreasonable order. 

But what does it mean to be responsible? This question is surprisingly hard to answer. Yet, despite that, it is vital to discuss and deliberate over. There might not be straightforward answer(s), but the deliberations over this and related questions have value in themselves, and will eventually turn up into new and interesting perspectives on mankind’s endeavor for new knowledge and new innovations.

In a recent article by Monteiro, Shelley-Egan and Dratwa (2017) the authors reflected on the responses to the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil. This outbreak was framed as an urgent crisis and an emergency that tend to highlight the need for urgent, quick and effective actions. This again could turn the focus to technological quick fixes, including the release of genetically modified mosquito strains, rather than addressing longer-term inequalities. Under such haste, panic and fear become driving forces and governance may soon end up as irresponsible.

On one level, one could say that the quest to eradicate the Zika virus is responsible in itself. It is a laudable goal of this research: to combat and possibly eradicate the mosquito that carries that virus. Who could be against this quest, who would suggest putting any further obligations on this project and its researchers? Some would say that this research need not be deliberated over: Is not their aim both clear and good?

Transparency as "a connecting rod"

To this, one could argue that the solutions that these researchers come up with, are eventually to be employed in the real world, in a setting populated in a dynamic environment inhabited by people that may have other ideas. 

This is why participatory involvement of the public and stakeholders often is highlighted in debates on RRI. A starting point for such involvement is that research needs to be transparent, and that goes for all phases of a project: who is financing? What are the research questions? What theories are selected (and why)?  Which methods are chosen (and why)?.. and so on.

Being transparent facilitates to involve stakeholders and the public, because transparency builds trust. And trust is necessary when you want to get them involved in your research.

As Monteiro et al would emphasize, being transparent is a prerequisite to build legitimacy when the knowledge enters the political/governance domain.

Harald Trone-Holst


About the Author: Harald Throne-Holst is the leader of the Work Package "Social Response and Responsibility" in the iResponse project. He is head of research at SIFO, National Institute for Consumer Research, working on governance of different types  of technologies, sustainable consumption, and energy use. 

Twitter: @ThatRRIguy

Reference: Monteiro, M., Shelley-Egan, C., and Dratwa, J. (2017). On irresponsibility in times of crisis: learning from the response to the Zika virus outbreak. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 4 (1), pp 71-77.