RRI in the Brazilian University: notes from our focus group at UNICAMP

Author: Marko Monteiro

The UNICAMP focus group for the RRI Practice Project was held on Dec. 11th, 2017, with full support from the University’s Dean of Research Dr. Munir Skaf, who was present and enabled a very rich and engaging discussion between the participants. We managed to bring together a very representative group of professors and staff from the university, who were enthusiastic about participating in the project. We tried to invite people who would represent the keys of RRI as best as possible, based on their areas of expertise and where they worked at the University. The participants were:

1. Munir Skaf (Professor of Chemistry/UNICAMP’s Dean of Research)

2. Vanessa Sensato (INOVA, UNICAMP’s innovation agency)

3. Gildenir Carolino Santos (Central Library/Coordinator of UNICAMP’s Scientific Periodicals Portal)

4. Regiane Alcântara (Central Library/Coordinator of the centralized livrary online database, SBU)

5. Simone Pallone (Researcher at Labjor, UNICAMP’s Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism)

6. Regina Facchini (Researcher at PAGU, UNICAMP’s Gender Studies research center)

7. Profa. Sandra Fernandes Leite (Head of UNICAMP’s Ethics Committee in Human and Social Sciences)

8. Paulo Arruda (Professor at UNICAMP’s Biology Institute/Local Leader of the Open Science Structural Genomics Consortium)

Our goal was to discuss what participants understood RRI to be, and what it could mean for UNICAMP and for Brazil. We began with a brief presentation of the project, the RRI keys and the AIRR dimensions, and then discussed collectively each element with participants. Differing from our planned structure, in which we wanted to discuss the keys first and the AIRR dimensions later, it was the AIRR dimensions that raised the more heated debates right from the beginning.

Some participants were skeptical about the possibility of any kind of practical implementation of such principles in the university, or even in the context of Brazilian science, given the potential “dangers” – as some put it – of political or partisan interests interfering with research. They pointed out that research, already ‘under attack’ from budget cuts and lack of strategic planning, would be increasingly questioned by interest groups not pertinent or knowledgeable enough to bring about meaningful participation. Politically motivated activism against animal experimentation and its limiting effects on research was put forward as an example of the dangers of ‘inclusion’ in scientific policy processes, which the university had already been affected by in the past. Some participants were adamant about making sure that research was protected from such interferences, a common thread throughout our research in Brazil, which poses an interesting challenge to any form of RRI.

When we talked about the RRI keys, many interesting debates arose about the absence of debates on gender inclusion policies in areas such as entrepreneurship and innovation. Also, the need to innovate was a very present theme in debates: some thought that instead of discussing regulation or control of research, what Brazil needed most was to increase funding and make research more flexible, and more in contact with private enterprise or ‘the market’. This was somewhat of a side topic from what we planned, but it needs to be addressed as part of how the Brazilian context would (or wouldn’t) accept RRI. Most participants agreed that open access is a crucial part of producing science and that increasing scientific output visibility was not only positive but indeed the gold standard for future science, but practical implementation problems remain a challenge. In contrast, open science was posited as possibly beneficial for some research sectors, but not necessarily for others. Questions into the ethics, profitability and infrastructure for ‘open’ projects remain a gray area, but this uncertainty is not exclusive to the Brazilian context. When talking about ethics in research there was also wide agreement that this should mean a practical ‘good practices’ approach and not a broader discussion of ethics upstream in the research project, which is also in tension with the wider meaning of ethics in RRI. In terms of education, people were enthusiastic about the promotion of more activities involving teaching, teachers and the wider community.

We can conclude that the focus group was successful in engaging a group of university staff, researchers and professors; as usual, people are open and enthusiastic about debating RRI, but this enthusiasm differs in relation to how they understand the practical aspects of it: while some perceive RRI as an opportunity to discuss gender and other relatively absent topics in science policy, others see some aspects of RRI as inadequate in the Brazilian context, especially in the cases where it may clash with autonomy of scientists and research institution, or with the need to promote technological innovation and economic growth.

The article was originally published on https://luisreyes92.wixsite.com/unicamprri/blog

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