The Keys of Responsible Research and Innovation

Although the EPSRC commissioned the AREA Framework, it is widely recognised and used as a basis for RRI approaches across a range of funders and projects. The European Commission has also covered and promoted RRI in its Research Framework Programmes. The EU perspective builds on a different organisational history and has a different emphasis. But it provides a complementary perspective on RRI here.

The European Commission uses the term RRI to denote a number of policy activities it has pursued. These were combined under the headings of ‘Science and Society’ (FP6), ‘Science in Society’ (FP7) and ‘Science with and for Society’ (Horizon 2020). 

The six keys under these headings constitute responsible research and innovation practices according to the EU. These six keys are: Ethics, Science Education, Gender Equality, Open Access, Governance and Public Engagement.

One way of interpreting the relationship between the AREA Framework and the six keys is that AREA answers the question of ‘how’ to do RRI, whereas the six keys focus on the ‘what’, i.e. the RRI content. Below, the four AREA elements and the six keys are described together in more detail in order to provide a basic explanation of RRI that can be used for projects funded either by the UK or the EU.


Thinking about the possible consequences of research and innovation is a key component of RRI. Concern over the role of science and technology in traumatic developments such as the industrialised mass killings in modern warfare and the potential annihilation of humanity through nuclear weapons led to new ways of reflecting on science and technology research and innovation. Chernobyl and Bhopal have become synonymous with industrial accidents made possible by scientific and technical progress.

It is not only catastrophic one-off events that need to be considered. Current discussions of the social consequences of social media use, for example, focus on the way in which novel technologies have cumulative effects that were unforeseen and unplanned when these technologies were developed.

This points to a key challenge of anticipation: the future is unknown. How can an individual researcher, research institute or funder be expected to know what all the future consequences of their work will be? Although not all the consequences can be known, we may have strong reasons to believe that some aspects of the future can be successfully anticipated. Past experience can to some degree be extrapolated to expectations of the future. In addition, researchers have expectations about the outcomes of their work. In the UK funding environment, most proposals have to be accompanied by a description of expected ‘pathways to impact’. Anticipation in the RRI sense of the word can be more or less formal and elaborated. The key to anticipation for RRI is to ensure that consequences of undertaking the research and of possible findings are considered and that these considerations are reflected in the research design.

Further Reading


Reflection is at the heart of RRI. Researchers always reflect on the research question they ask, the type of data they collect, the way they analyse the data and the implications of findings. Reflection in the RRI sense goes further to examine the research or innovation activities more broadly. This means asking fundamental questions such as “Is this research required at all?” “Will the (foreseeable) negative consequences of this work be proportional to the (intended) consequences?” or “Could the research question / problem be addressed in a completely different way?”

One way of describing reflection in RRI is to see it as an example of second order reflexivity, i.e. of a reflection on the processes of reflection that underpin and guide research. This means that the axioms and basic assumptions need to be questioned with a view to ensuring that the research is aligned with societal needs and requirements.

Reflection can be an individual activity, with the individual innovator thinking about their work. However, in many cases this will not lead to relevant insights, as it is difficult for most people to clearly understand their own biases and preconceptions. Reflexivity is therefore often best undertaken collectively. It typically forms part of engagement activities. There are also many ways of forcing reflection through organisational processes and structures, e.g. in the form of a project advisory board, stage gating processes, review and quality assurance steps and many others. The key is to ensure that there is space in the research activities to take a step back and look at the work from different perspectives

Further Reading


Research ethics are relevant not only to researchers and research institutions but also to funders, policy makers and industries as they are all involved in the research and innovation process. There are three key components:

Research integrity, which refers to the appropriate conduct of researchers to prevent misconduct or negligence. As a researcher you are not only responsible for the research that you carry out, but also for your behaviour.

Applying fundamental ethical principles to research such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance, data privacy, consent.

Taking into account society’s needs to ensure societal relevance of research and align research to social values. This also includes reflecting on people’s concerns about research and innovation and including societal actors in the discourse

Further Reading

Science Education

Engaging with schoolteachers and students can be very effective in reaching a broad cross-section of society and inspiring the next generation of researchers. Some of the latest research about attitudes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects shows that students find science interesting and relevant at school, but do not see themselves as scientists. This is often connected to their level of ‘science capital’ – a measure of a person’s engagement or relationship with science, how much they value it and whether they feel it is ‘for them’ and connected to their life.

Visits from working scientists or researchers can help break down the barriers for students with low science capital. Having a face-to-face meeting with a role model can make a big difference to whether a student thinks they could do science in the future. 

If you are new to working with schools, there are many existing programmes you could join in with to get started. There is a UK-wide STEM Ambassadors scheme which provides basic training and the required Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate to clear you for working in schools. In addition, there are regular events that schools want help with, including British Science Week, CREST awards (science projects done by school students), after-school science or coding clubs and regional and national events like Big Bang Fairs.

When you are talking to school students, include information about your career path and be honest about your ability and struggles. Talk about your personality traits (not just what you do), values and what it is like to work in a team. Some educational research suggests that hearing about the type of people that work in science, rather than just what they do, may help inspire more girls in particular to consider STEM careers.

Further Reading

Gender and Equality

There are many reasons why you should be thinking about gender equality within your RRI analysis and in your research work in general. Society is 50% female, yet the physical sciences, ICT and engineering are still majority male, especially at the higher levels. Without intention this could affect the research questions you ask or the models that you build.

In her book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, Caroline Criado Perez highlights many technology solutions that do not take gender differences into account, such as drugs trials, car seatbelt design and voice recognition technology. 

Many research funders ask for evidence of your action plan on equality, diversity and inclusion in order to apply for funding; quality mark schemes such as Athena-SWAN (HE) and Project Juno (Institute of Physics) aim to assess action taken to ensure no barriers remain for women who want to progress in their careers of choice.

In recent years, it has become a legal requirement to publish pay data from both public and private sectors to encourage organisations to address the gender pay gap. This has begun to make changes to embedded cultural issues that were often hidden in industry and academia.

There are both ethical and economic reasons for implementing gender equality: research conducted by Harvard Business School/McKinsey shows that gender diverse boards generate better profits than those that are not.

Further Reading

Open Access

Making research free to access and publicly available to everyone is the thinking behind Open Access – or Open Science. 

There is growing evidence that Open Science can benefit research and society by reducing wasteful duplication, increasing transparency and reproducibility of results. There is also a strong moral argument for publicly funded research to be widely accessible to the public.

Open Science has been considered to be a core activity for the EU and has been included in the Horizon 2020 work programme, making it mandatory for all H2020 funded projects. On top of this, in 2018, Science Europe launched Plan S, an initiative that requires researchers that are funded by public money to publish their work in open repositories and open journals by 2021.

Further Reading


Governance refers to practices that an organisation has in place in order to foster and promote responsible research and innovation. For instance, this could be:

  • Having transparent and reflective internal procedures
  • Promoting participatory governance
  • Fostering stakeholder engagement exercises
  • Encouraging future-oriented governance
  • Valuing responsiveness

These approaches highlight the importance of including stakeholders in policy research, and the importance of the active role of researchers in reflecting on and shaping the direction of their research. Not only should this reflection be directed at the effects of the research being carried out, but also on the governance principles and rules that determine the behaviour of an institution.

Further Reading

Public Engagement

Before you start any public engagement activity you should think about your motivation and the most suitable audience for your message.

Your public engagement activity may meet a number of motivations; for example working with school students can inspire the next generation of STEM professionals, be rewarding for you and have economic impact (research shows strong links between a country’s economy and its provisions for STEM graduates).

You may feel that improving scientific literacy is of great importance and this may direct you towards a certain audience to raise their level of knowledge about a subject. By improving scientific literacy, you may also help people become better-informed in their decision making. Most forms of engagement will fit one or more of these motivations and it can be very useful to be clear with yourself which ones are important in your research and to you as a citizen as part of your planning.

Further Reading