(posted 11th December 2017)
As scientific research and technology development increasingly influence everyday life, responsibility emerges as a theme of discussion. Often related to using science for the benefit of society, engaging in risk management or adhering to principles of good scientific practice, it is a concept with multiple meanings. This article outlines what responsibility means for scientists in the Silver Santé Study.
The Silver Santé Study is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, which supports projects promoting so-called “Responsible Research and Innovation” (RRI). RRI has become a key word in academia and policy-making since the beginning of the 21st century; however, the concept still lacks clarity and definition. It is an umbrella term allowing for multiple interpretations, especially because the notion of responsibility has a long history in science. Concerns about responsible research arose when physicists worried about the dual use of nuclear fission for both civil and military purposes prior to the production of the atomic bomb. The notion of responsibility entered neuroscience in the 1970s; back then, the Society for Neuroscience created a Committee on Social Responsibility organising roundtable discussions on socially sensitive topics.
What does responsibility mean to neuroscientists involved in the Silver Santé Study? What do they contribute to define and realise RRI? To answer these questions, I visited the research institute Cyceron in Caen, France, where the Silver Santé Study is based and conducted interviews with key researchers. My results suggest that responsibility in the Silver Santé Study takes on a relational character. What neuroscientists feel responsible for depends on who they feel responsible to. Neuroscientists particularly emphasise their responsibilities to research participants and fellow researchers.
The Project Coordinator Dr Gaël Chételat points out that responsible research goes beyond protecting research participants from physical or mental harm and safeguarding their privacy as required by research regulation. She stresses that researchers have the responsibility to engage in respectful and friendly relationships with research participants and, therefore, encourages her team to turn research participation into a “nice experience”. Her team members take this very seriously when taking physiological and behavioural measurements: attentively covering research participants with blankets to ensure that they feel comfortable in the brain scanner, explaining experimental tasks with patience, encouraging participants to share their experiences, and showing curiosity for their personal stories.
According to neuroscientist Dr Olga Klimecki of the University of Geneva, the Silver Santé Study represents a “good example of responsibility in team work and collaboration”. Dr Klimecki, who investigates the impact of emotions on mental health as part of the study, takes the view that scientists ought to uphold two central responsibilities to their fellow researchers: crediting authorship of scientific articles and supporting maternity. She appreciates that the researchers involved in the Silver Santé Study make efforts to take on both responsibilities. Dr Antoine Lutz, who is based at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre and manages the project’s meditation intervention, deems researchers responsible for creating a cooperative working atmosphere. He acknowledges that this is realised in the Silver Santé Study by means of a horizontal hierarchy; “it is not a regular pyramid with an alpha male”.
Exploring what responsibility means in the Silver Santé Study reveals how responsibilities are adopted by researchers in daily routine and shape their concrete interactions with others. Maintaining and fostering these already existing responsibilities might contribute to the definition and implementation of RRI. It remains open for interpretation why particular emphasis is placed on relational responsibilities in the Silver Santé Study – responsibilities neuroscientists feel to others. Dr Lutz offers one possible explanation: “In general, whoever is involved in the study, I think they also try to embody some of the qualities that we are studying”. Accordingly, both the practice and study of meditation seem to promote responsibility as caring for others.
Chételat, G. (April 25, 2017). Personal communication on responsible research in the Silver Santé Study. Interview conducted at the biomedical research institute Cyceron in Caen, France.
European Commission (2014). Clinical Trials Regulation (EU) No 536/2014. Retrieved on May 8, 2017, from http://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/files/eudralex/vol- 1/reg_2014_536/reg_2014_536_en.pdf
Klimecki, O. (April 27, 2017). Personal communication on responsible research in the Silver Santé Study. Interview conducted via telephone.
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