February 26, 2014, by Sujatha Raman

Making Responsible Innovation Matter: From Research Projects to Public Policies

Writing in this blog, my colleague, Brigitte Nerlich, suggests that the agenda of responsible innovation is becoming an unstoppable juggernaut in the world of research policy and funding. She asks that we take pause to scrutinize and reflect more on this agenda. So, just what is responsible innovation? Is it the latest tick-boxing exercise that scientists have to go through to get research funding? Or is responsible innovation a powerful machine that alienates scientists? Nerlich raises both of these very different fears. The first would suggest that it’s ineffectual, making no real difference to the research process. The second implies that it’s possibly effective, but only in a perverse and eventually counter-productive way. Nerlich also argues that in making reference to aspirations that broadly sound unobjectionable (‘ethical’, ‘responsible’, democratic’, etc), responsible innovation is in danger of becoming a buzzword that allows people from different backgrounds to subscribe to the concept without having to be explicit about what it actually means.

I have been investigating the concept of responsible innovation (henceforth, RI) as part of a policy thought-leadership initiative supported by Sciencewise-ERC on ‘responsive research’ in which I’m exploring what it might mean for research to be responsive to public priorities. In this post, I will take a closer look at two papers in which the philosophy of responsible innovation has been quite explicitly developed, in particular, one led by Richard Owen and the other by Jack Stilgoe. I’ll also refer to articles on the related concept of anticipatory governance which respond to some of the concerns raised by critics. Finally, I’ll consider what is needed to make responsible innovation actually matter in practice, drawing from my other research on energy technologies.

Why Responsible Innovation?

RI is defined in two papers as “a collective commitment of care for the future through responsive stewardship of science and innovation in the present”. Why is such a commitment needed?

The authors highlight the limits of conventional routes to managing new technologies. These focus on the products of innovation, using scientific methods of assessing hazard (risk assessment) and introducing mechanisms of management (risk regulation) where this is deemed to be warranted by the science. Some of this regulation tended to happen retrospectively after new products were introduced and previously unforeseen (negative) impacts on human health or the environment discovered later. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in developing methods for anticipating impacts before introducing new technologies. Before the very possibility of doing so is rejected – after all, how can we foresee the unforeseeable? –  it is worth noting that David Guston, one of the RI authors, engages closely with precisely such a dilemma and traces the scientific legacy of anticipation (as distinct from prediction) to the Nobel-Prize winning chemist, Frederick Soddy.

RI authors argue that focusing just on hazard/safety of specific products is inadequate for governing innovation. Why? They suggest we need to collectively reflect on questions relating to the purposes of innovation. “Why do it? Who might benefit and how? Will such benefits be equitable? Will it confer burdens to some or many? In whose interests is it being undertaken…”?

Now, it might seem that there is already extensive discussion of the unequal distribution of innovation’s burdens – for example, we see a lot of this in the case of ‘first-generation’ biofuel technologies. But the point is that this discussion has happened retrospectively. Arguably, more should have been done to anticipate and manage the process of introducing such technologies at the start.

Likewise, motivations are quite routinely addressed around many novel technologies – for example, with some claiming that we need GM crops to feed hungry people and others contesting it. From an RI perspective, though, the issue is not so much whether people in an innovation ecosystem talk about motivations to develop a particular technology (of course, they do) but how this discussion happens and what sorts of assumptions are built into it. Essentially, RI authors argue that we need better ways of appraising motivations. A key point here that has often been missed is: what are the alternative pathways of innovation to the specific technology that is on the agenda for discussion?

In some important ways, therefore, the philosophy of RI is centrally concerned with finding better ways of doing innovation. Would this slow down the process and hinder the economic competitiveness of countries or regions (such as the EU) in which policymakers operate? RI authors imply this is the wrong question, or, at least, one that is framed in a narrow way that implies the pace of innovation (slow or fast) has value in itself. Instead, RI could well “speed innovation up, slow it down, or change its direction” depending on how the reflexive process they call for works in practice. As a recent Nuffield Council on Bioethics report puts it, policymakers need to justify public investment in research and innovation not just in terms of economic value but in terms of the public good, a task that requires attending to diverse perspectives and forms of evidence.

How can Responsible Innovation be brought about?

If innovation emerges within an ecosystem consisting of multiple actors, actions and institutions as the RI literature suggests, then it is hard to see how this system can be transformed just a few years into the emergence of ideas such as those outlined above. So, by contrast with Nerlich’s focus on what responsible innovation does as an orientation towards innovation in the present, I’m interested also in what RI might become or how it might be brought about.

In the RI papers cited above, the authors offer a heuristic framework for identifying the kinds of issues that need to be considered in a broader appraisal of innovation. Judging by the experiments they cite of the embedding of RI agendas in research (for example, in projects on geoengineering and nanotechnology), it is clear that various techniques have been developed and tried out to put these aspirations into practice. But can responsible innovation work simply at the level of research projects?

The logic of embedding RI within research is, at one level, clear. One reason, as I’ve explained, is the desire to anticipate rather than wait until new technologies are already embedded. Logically, this means going back to the source of innovation – not because innovation automatically unfolds from research done in a laboratory, but because it’s at this stage that there is room to influence what happens. The second reason is that if RI is about doing innovation better, it’s hard to imagine how this can happen without the involvement of scientists and other researchers.

Yet, this same logic can easily be translated into a policy mechanism for monitoring research and placing the burden of responsibility onto researchers alone as Nerlich implies might be already happening. So, while RI philosophies talk about co-responsibility and the ecosystem of innovation, RI practice so far seems to spotlight research alone.

In conclusion, I want to underline the importance of opening up RI to other sites. In my collaborative work on the history of bioenergy research, I have found that the kinds of concerns expressed today (e.g., about the impacts of land-use change or of monoculture practices) were widely anticipated and discussed by researchers promoting the technology. Yet, these were not things that they were able to shape (nor would we expect them to have done so from an RI ‘ecosystem’ perspective). Likewise, my work on renewable energy opens up a range of wider issues including the political economy and governance of mining operations linked to the supply of essential metals for making the technologies. Clearly, these are all matters involving governments, corporations and other institutions, as well as research.

Putting RI frameworks into the research process could help open up wider issues around innovation beyond the laboratory. But these cannot be the sole responsibility of the researchers bringing them up for discussion. For these issues to matter in practice, we need RI to be linked to a range of policy mechanisms beyond research projects alone.

Note: This post is part of a series of blogposts for a policy thought-leadership project on Responsive Research supported by Sciencewise-ERC. Sciencewise-ERC is not responsible for the content of any of the views expressed in this post. A subsequent post will explore the implications of responsible innovation as described above for policymaking on research priorities.

Image credit: Toban Black (published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license)

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