RRI implementation needs different approaches in different contexts. The STARBIOS2 guidelines offer many examples of this. Based in Sofia, Bulgaria, and with expertice in plant science, this is an overview of Agrobioinstitute’s experiences implementing RRI.
The main challenge was related to the fact that we promoted structural change by developing a new structure: The Plant biotechnology Information Center (PBIC). In this new structure, the STARBIIOS2 project’s core team took on a double role, making science and promoting RRI in science at the same time!
Focus on Full RRI package
The PBIC was established as a focal point and to serve as the engine for all RRI activities of the Agrobioinstitute, both internal activities and our outreach. We decided to develop activities to cover all RRI keys: Public engagement, gender, open access, science education, and ethics.
There was a lack or limited experience in RRI activities, both within the ABI team and in the Bulgarian scientific society as a whole. We also needed to deal with a deep societal distrust to modern plant biotechnology approaches. Furthermore, both young people, and a predominant part of the educational system, seem to lack interest in plant science, which hampered active networking with schools and universities.
In addition, we had difficulties convincing scientists to communicate with the public, and the response from public institutions and administration was slow, and sometimes a bit “clumsy”.
Another major obstacle that plant bioscientists need to navigate is related to public distrust, and prejudice about GMOs – a problem coming from the broad public, media, environmentalists and other non-governmental organisations. What makes this particularly challenging is that this hurdle is to be considered there as a rule, not an exception.
Action plans in action
The PBICwas established as a permanent structural unit of ABI. A dedicated website was developed: plantbiotech.bg, which is available in both English and Bulgarian and updated regularly.
The action plan included a set of outreach activities for all RRI key areas.
Public engagement: Networking with governmental and non-governmental organizations; promoting plant science via PBIC web page; organization of various public events.
Science education: Activities focused on young generations, i.e. lectures in schools and at universities; laboratory practice for high school students on the ABI premises; three national essay contests that have covered various topics and engaged numerous participants.
Inside the ABI, we focused on open access, ethics, and gender. We developed an open access policy plan for ABI covering both development and implementation. For ethics, we developed and implemented an ABI Code of Ethics and professional conduct in plant science and established an institutional Commission on Ethics. In addition, we developed specialised professional training on bioethics for young scientists. In relation to gender, we performed a survey about gender equality in ABI covering all staff. The results and their in-depth evaluation did not show any gender-related issues in respect of the position and role of women in plant science in Bulgaria.
Sustainable maintenance of the PBIC and the plantbiotech.bg web page is important as this has been a focal point of all ABI RRI activities and our networking with society.
We have also managed to achieve sustainable institutional change, where all ABI publishing activities adhere strictly to the Open Access policy plan. In addition, all scientific activities will be performed in accordance with the Code of Ethics and professional conduct in plant science of the ABI, and the Commission on Ethics will take action when appropriate.
What we learned
Working on RRI is not that easy when you are a newcomer ☺! But when you manage to do it, a multidisciplinary approach is needed in all RRI actions, and this is particularly important in bioscience! Moreover, It is important to work in close collaboration with partner structures, more experienced in the field (as we did in STARBIOS2 team), to establish a good core team and a proper RRI Action plan, that is tailor-made for the specific organisation. Last but not least: When you work with enthusiasm and patience, sustainable change can be achieved!