February 24, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Responsible innovation: Great expectations, great responsibilities

I recently happened to click on a website providing advice to researchers working on ‘medical technologies’. It starts by pointing out that: “Researchers in cutting edge fields are increasingly being asked by funders and regulators to conduct responsible innovation in order to increase the social and economic benefits and effectively manage the risks of their work.”

Since around the start of the millennium research proposals submitted to physical, engineering, biological and medical science funders in the UK have to contain a section in which researchers explore how their research engages with the wider public sphere and more recently how it would lead social and economic impact in the wider world. Over the last couple of years or so reflections on public and stakeholder engagement have begun to be replaced by reflections on ‘responsible innovation‘ or ‘responsible research and innovation‘ (RRI), which tries to embed public participation earlier and more deeply into the research process and combines it with scientific and technological (risk) assessment.

Definitions of responsible innovation vary. However, this one comes up first when one puts ‘responsible innovation definition’ into Google: “Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products( in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)” (René von Schomberg, 2011)

Responsible (research and) innovation is becoming a new language for thinking about relations between science and society, science in society, science with society and science for society. This is observable not only in the UK but also, and perhaps even more so in Europe, especially as part of Horizon 2020, and now also in the US.

Funders hope that, through ‘responsible innovation’, innovations can happen on a moral basis and that one can steer innovations to the ‘right’ impacts in an ethical and democratic way. They also hope that one can do this while staying economically competitive during times of financial crisis and while societies are grappling with a number of great socio-economic challenges that demand “the development of new, interdisciplinary, innovative and impact-oriented solutions“.

In principle, responsible innovation seems to be a ‘good idea’ and a ‘good thing’. Why would one object to it? In the following I’ll first chart a very short history of responsible innovation, summarise some recent work on buzzwords like responsible innovation, and then point to some possible fault-lines that need to be monitored in the future.


There have always been efforts to make the science and innovation process more ethical and responsible through codes of conduct, codes of ethics, corporate social responsibility programmes, public consultations, public participation and so on. However, the new ‘responsible innovation’ agenda began to emerge only quite recently in around 2010/2011 in a variety of shapes and forms, when people like René von Schomberg, Jack Stilgoe, Richard Owen, and Phil Macnaghten started to write and blog about it. This new push for responsible innovation has some of its roots in debates about the responsible use of emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology in around 2007, and reflections on how this fitted in with established frameworks of ethics, governance, public engagement and risk assessment (more information here). In the current round Horizon 2020 allocates around €14 million to responsible innovation projects.

In a very short time responsible innovation has become an important part of the European and UK funding and research scene. Like older enterprises, such as public engagement, dialogue, participation and so on, it has the support of both the scientific elite (funders and industry) and of those who see their task as critically engaging with science and technology from the perspective of ‘science and technology studies’. Interestingly, responsible innovation is now becoming itself an object of study for sociology and the social study of science. It even has its own journal. Responsible innovation, at least as an academic enterprise, seems to be unstoppable. It’s a bit of a steamroller; it’s big; there is a lot of buzz about it; but … there may be issues we have to think about.


In a recent article for Public Understanding of Science, the philosopher and historian of science Bernadette Bensaude Vincent discusses the ‘politics of buzzwords’, focusing in particular on ‘public engagement’. She also mentions in passing a number of other buzzwords, such as ‘responsible innovation’.

She points out that buzzwords have their roots in marketing and are “hollow terms, with more hype than substance” (p. 3), or as the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “a term used more to impress than to inform” (OED). Could it be the case that responsible innovation is such a term? But if it’s hollow and hype how can it attract so much attention and so many followers? There are various reasons for this. Responsible innovation comes as part of a cluster of phrases, which all reinforce each other. These are: responsible innovation, sustainable development and, of course, public engagement. Together they convey a message that is easily remembered, albeit vague. Such buzzwords are especially potent when they appear in times of crisis and seem to show a way out of the crisis. The concept responsible innovation emerged in the middle of the world’s latest financial crisis, which is also a crisis in innovation.

As Bensaude Vincent points out, buzzwords spread, like rumour, from mouth to mouth, paper to paper, institution to institution. In the case of responsible innovation this happened through academic papers, blogs, briefing documents and, most importantly, ‘frameworks’ for and by funders both in the UK and in Europe, and now also in the US. Once widely spread, buzzwords establish something like a ‘trading zone’ in which people from different backgrounds, such as funders, natural and social scientists, policy makers and industrialists, can communicate without however having to be too explicit about what they are saying.

The success of responsible innovation as a buzzword, the speed with which it has spread and established itself, is quite astounding. Another reason for this, apart from the flexible way with which it can be used, may be that it links up with and reinforces prominent cultural values and also promises to enable a way of innovating and creating wealth without destroying such values. Responsible innovation promises to deliver innovations that are ethically acceptable, safe, sustainable and socially desirable, for example. That’s all ‘good’, isn’t it?


Buzzwords like ‘responsible (research and) innovation’ seem to have an almost magical force, especially if used ritualistically and repeatedly, as they seem to be in the context of current research funding applications. But should one perhaps question this magical power a bit more?

Are there some chinks in the magical armour of responsible innovation that need to be discussed? Here are some questions that one might want to ask, some of which have been asked already by Hilary Sutcliffe, one of the champions but also critics of responsible innovation (for some more questions see p. 9 of this article by Nikolas Rose, HT @SujathaRaman2):

  • Does responsible innovation slow down research and innovation? And is that good or bad in a competitive market situation?
  • Horizon 2020 is supposed to increase competitiveness. May responsible innovation impede competition?
  • Is responsive innovation just a perfunctory tick-boxing exercise that one has to go through to get funding?
  • Should one think more about the responsibility of funders in setting research and impact agendas in the context of responsible innovation?
  • May responsible innovation lead to alienation and disengagement rather than integration and collaboration between workers in the social and natural sciences, as they might feel they are just cogs in a huge responsible innovation machine that needs to be fed?
  • Is responsible innovation merely ‘academic’, in the pejorative sense of that word? That is to say, is it just one of those key words you have to use in your funding application to press the right buttons, or does it have real world relevance in industry, in businesses and for people in enterprise, people who actually do the ‘innovation’? And, of course, does it have real value for those living with and through those innovations, that is ‘real’ people?
  • Can responsible innovation actually achieve its intended goal or this goal intrinsically elusive? And finally:
  • Is responsible innovation perhaps not as big as the buzz suggests, or only big in parts?

‘Responsible innovation’ creates great expectations that ‘mobilise the future into the present’, while at the same time trying to anticipate and assess the impacts that possible futures may have on the present. This is a complex task that needs more scrutiny than it has so far received, and not only in academic circles. We might need a responsible innovation approach to responsible innovation itself.


A scholarly postscript, added 25 February

As Bensaude Vincent has shown, responsible innovation is becoming a keyword of modern scientific life. I would urge people who have the time and the inclination to study it as such in more detail. This could be done using various theoretical and methodological and critical frameworks, such as the German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte (the historical and semantic study of concepts), the French tradition of the analysis of mots clés (key words which reflect the cultural values of the speakers of a language or languages at a particular time) inaugurated by George Matoré, or the English tradition of key word analysis (or the study of the social force of words and their meanings in cultural contexts) that has emerged from the work of Raymond Williams.

As responsible innovation is a European project, drawing on these different but convergent European traditions of scholarship might be quite exciting. They all study words in the context of society, culture and, most importantly values. If one wanted to be truly interdisciplinary, one could combine such a historical, cultural and linguistic study with approaches used within the sociology of expectations and engage in a historical and conceptual examiniation of this emerging field.


More discussions of responsible research and innovation will happen here on the blog in the future, stimulated by research carried out in our team by Sujatha Raman, Stevienna De Saille, Sarah Hartley, Warren Pearce, and Carmen McLeod.

Added 6 March 2014: Good history of ‘anticipatory governance’ by David Guston here.

Added 14 March, 2014: Manchester Policy blog on responsible innovation

Added 2 April, 2014: Great summary of RRI by R von Schomberg

Added 19 August, 2014: Great look at the roots of RRI by Hilary Sutcliffe

Added 19 August, 2014: wiki-definition!

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Posted in Politicspublic engagement with scienceresponsible innovationScienceScience and Government