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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

EGN Conference 2013 – Plenary Three: The Past, Present and Future of Responsible Innovation

Options for Strengthening Responsible Research and
by Emma Frow - Genomics Forum Associate Director and Lecturer in Science & Technology Studies, University of Edinburgh


What’s not to like about responsible innovation? I mean, who would rather have irresponsible stagnation? But even if we think the first of these sounds better, we might still ask where the term ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI) has come from, what it means, and where it is going. These were the framing questions for the first plenary session on Wednesday morning. In introducing the session, chair Hub Zwart (Nijmegen) raised two further critical questions to set the stage for the provocations and discussion the followed. First, he asked whether RRI reflects a paradigm shift away from more traditional ‘ethical, legal and social’ approaches to studying innovation. And second, he asked what the role of social scientists might be in the context of RRI – is it to help organize and mediate responsible research, or is there space for a more critical role?

A key goal of responsible innovation that was highlighted throughout the session was the opening up to wide(r) deliberation some fundamental questions about the purpose and direction of innovation. Embracing this spirit of ‘opening up’, Richard Owen started the panel discussion by asking the audience what they understood by the term ‘responsible.’ He then drew our attention to two central ideas of ‘care’ and ‘responsiveness.’ Crucially, starting with these ideas helps us get away from a simple assessment of innovation in terms of risks and benefits, which has become a dominant and often unproductive evaluative framework for new technologies. But it doesn’t eliminate the broad challenge of how to pursue innovation under circumstances of uncertainty.

René von Schomberg presented a definition of RRI as “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsible to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its (marketable) outcomes and impacts.” His remarks focused on the management of innovation, drawing our attention to stakeholder involvement and the distribution of labour and tasks in the innovation process that might stem from RRI. He proposed that RRI does mark a ‘paradigm shift’ in research and innovation policy, and noted that RRI is likely to be incorporated into the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research framework.

Hugh Whittall reflected on how the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has been thinking about issues like responsible innovation. Hugh proposed that RRI does seem go beyond the traditional ‘ethical, legal and social issues’ approach to studying new technologies, but suggested that it should be accompanied by a broader vision of ‘public ethics’. This is an idea that the Nuffield Council have been working with in a recent report on emerging biotechnologies. They see a focus on public ethics as a way of opening up and reframing discussions to help bring public values to light in technology choice and democratic decision-making.

Using data gathered by the OECD, Iain Gillespie showed the clear links between innovation and growth in economies around the world. He suggested that both the public and private sectors have ‘an economic and moral responsibility to innovate,’ but that investing in the ‘right’ innovation is also part of this responsibility. He suggested that innovation and responsibility could become mutually empowering ideas, and sees responsible innovation as a potential ‘New Enlightenment,’ one that puts society back at the core of the innovation enterprise.

Jane Calvert reflected on her experiences as a social scientist deeply involved with the synthetic biology research community. She noted several positive aspects of the growing emphasis on RRI in her work, suggesting that had the potential to foster genuinely interdisciplinary and collaborative research. But she also raised some concern about social scientists being cast in a service or midwifery role (to ‘deliver’ RRI on scientific projects), and asked how we might ensure the independence of social science research when we are becoming increasingly attached to large scientific projects. And she also raised the question of whether how we should balance the ideas of collective responsibility and individual responsibility in future innovation.

A lively discussion ensued, raising questions about what might count as an ‘irresponsible’ innovation (with the ownership model of breast cancer genetic diagnostics and financial instruments like asset-backed securities offered as examples); about whether RRI promotes a focus on ‘innovation’ at the expense of other values; about the relationship between innovation and governance; about the risk of RRI turning into a form of stealth advocacy; about whether the concept of RRI is predominantly focused on high-tech, radical innovation as opposed to the incremental innovation; and about the implementation and evaluation of RRI in practical terms.

Over morning tea and during lunch, I heard several conversations in the Great Hall that picked up on issues raised in the panel discussion. Some weren’t convinced by the idea of thinking about innovation in terms like ‘responsible’ or ‘irresponsible,’ others wanted to know more about ideas of ‘frugal innovation’ and ‘slow innovation’ that panelists had mentioned (with the suggestion that these might be more ‘responsible’ forms of innovation in some way), and others still were skeptical about how responsible innovation could be translated into practice and evaluated. To my mind, the general skepticism I heard was interesting in at least two respects. First, it suggests that there is need for further discussion and clarification of RRI, and perhaps some experimentation to explore what it might come to mean in practice. But simultaneously, the types of questions and concerns being raised highlighted to me that the term ‘responsible research and innovation’ is already doing something important – it is provoking broader discussion about the role and purpose of innovation, and it is more explicitly putting values on the table as something to be discussed.

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