November 22, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

RRI and impact: An ‘impossiblist’ agenda for research?

Richard Jones has written a long, profound and thought-provoking blog post on (ir)responsible innovation (stagnation). I read his post alongside a recent post on the social impact of research, its challenges and opportunities. This made me think that we are witnessing a confluence of agendas which are generally only looked at separately but that should really be scrutinised together; namely, what it means for us academics to live in a world increasingly governed by both demands for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and demands for Impact as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). All this reminded me of a blog post on the REF which highlighted its ‘impossiblist’ discourse.

In this context I want to ask: Are RRI and impact, separate or together, an ‘impossiblist’ agenda for academic research and might they have negative rather than positive effects on the way we carry out research and translate it into products, services, innovations? I have no answers to these questions but will point out some paradoxes and also come to one relatively positive conclusion.

What are RRI and Impact?

First RRI: Richard Jones points out: “responsible innovation is a term of art in science policy. Richard Owen, Jack Stilgoe and Phil Macnaghten, writing for the UK research council EPSRC, define it as ‘a commitment to care for the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present”, while Rene von Schomberg, in the context of the EU’s Framework program, writes that “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).”

Now Impact: The Economic and Social Research Council points out that: “Research Councils UK (RCUK) defines research impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’. Research impact embraces all the diverse ways that research-related skills benefit individuals, organisations and nations. These include: fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom’; increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy; enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.

A key aspect of this definition of research impact is that impact must be demonstrable. That is to say, impact must be auditable. And here we are getting into the realm of paradoxes…

Pathways to a better future?

Both RRI and impact deal with the future. Both are supposed to lead to innovations for and impacts on society that are ‘beneficial’ to society. Both are supposed to steer research from its inception to its application and beyond in a certain direction, on a certain pathway towards … a desirable good or better future (for all) that is compatible with or even inextricable linked to economic growth.

These entailments of the RRI and Impact agenda lead to certain challenges and even paradoxes highlighted in the two blog posts I cited at the start of this post.

With respect to RRI, Jones points to one paradox when he writes: “We need to innovate responsibly, and yet, we do need to innovate. If it’s irresponsible to innovate without a reflexive process of alignment with widely held societal priorities, it’s irresponsible not to innovate in the face of pressing societal challenges. This necessary innovation is not happening.”

With respect to impact, Peter A.G. van Bergeijk, Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits, and Linda Johnson point out that when it comes to generating and auditing impact, especially in the context of development studies and the social sciences: “social scientists often have to deal with specific and sensitive types of data, have limited budgets available for impact assessments to track (long run) social impact and are confronted with the ambiguity of whose intervention actually produced a particular impact on a particular situation, when many stakeholders from diverse sectors are involved (so that the question arises to whom to give credit for a certain policy outcome when the research has been carried out with a variety of stakeholders including government officials, NGOs and private sector representatives. ).”

This hints at another overall paradox hidden in RRI and Impact: How can one steer a hugely complex system towards a better future, a future that we ‘all’ (or at least most of us) want? This complex system comprises what one may still call basic science, applied science, the private and public sector (which are increasingly intermingled), people (let’s not forget people, and people do lots of things for very different and unpredictable reasons), markets, (unpredictable) natural, social and political events and much more

Is it really possible in this context to audit Impact and to audit Responsibility? Is it possible to push for Impact (and Innovation) in a Responsible Way? Or are we not getting quite dangerously entangled in a deeply ‘impossiblist’ enterprise?


All this needs to be discussed in more detail. However, this does not mean that one should not keep some of the ‘maxims’ (in the Kantian sense) of RRI and Impact in mind when undertaking academic research. That’s my positive message. And yet, I believe that we would be deluding ourselves if we thought we could guide humanity to a ‘better’ future for ‘all’, whatever that may mean. In the context of RRI and Impact intentionality meets complexity and all that this entails.

Image: Photo taken in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2009

Posted in Impactresearch impactresponsible innovation