March 18, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Acceleration, autonomy and responsibility

In recent emails and meetings there has been a lot of talk about ‘acceleration’, both about the rhetorical use of acceleration in the context of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and about the reality of living in an accelerated academy. In this post I will examine ‘acceleration’ a bit further, especially in the context of synthetic biology. This is a topic that I have begun to explore in a previous post on ‘pathways’ – pathways to impact, innovation, growth – pathways which are gradually becoming speedways, at least rhetorically. This is also a topic that was discussed at a a workshop organised on 8 March by Sujatha Raman and Warren Pearce on the ‘Responsive-Innovative University’, part of a University of Nottingham Discipline Bridging Award.

Acceleration and synbio

In 2012 a UK Government advisory panel drafted a ‘Synthetic Biology Roadmap’ which laid out five key recommendations for the development of synthetic biology: (1) Invest in a network of multidisciplinary centres to establish an outstanding UK synthetic biology resource; (2) Build a skilled, energised and well-funded UK-wide synthetic biology community; (3) Invest to accelerate technology responsibly to market; (4) Assume a leading international role; (5) Establish a leadership council.

In 2016 a new version of the roadmap, a strategic plan entitled ‘Biodesign for the Bioeconomy’, was published. This document focuses in particular on recommendation (3) of the previous ‘roadmap’, now that the network of multidisciplinary centres and the leadership council have been established. The new strategic plan hopes that acceleration in ‘biodesign’ (a new word for synthetic biology?) will lead to a faster growth in the ‘bioeconomy’, one driving the other. The plan highlights five key areas of strategic importance, putting acceleration in first place: (1) Accelerating industrialisation and commercialisation; (2) Maximising the capability of the innovation pipeline; (3) Building an expert workforce; (4) Developing a supportive business environment, and (5) Building value from national and international partnerships.

Both the 2012 roadmap and the 2016 strategic plan stress the importance of RRI in the context of synthetic biology. However, there is clearly a tension between accelerating research and development for economic benefits and fostering a culture of responsible innovation (which should include time for anticipation and reflection). The authors of the 2016 strategic plan see ‘entrepreneurship’ as a bridge between the two and state: “A good understanding of stakeholder interests and potential future market value needs to continue to influence the selection of research topics and to inspire the development of innovative applications. Doing so within a responsible framework ensures effective balancing of societal benefits and commercial value. For synthetic biology entrepreneurship and the principles of responsible research and innovation can, and indeed should, be complementary.” Can such balance and complementarity be achieved?

Acceleration and autonomy

As Filip Vostal has made clear in a recent blog post entitled ‘In search of scholarly time’, a “commitment to speed” is nothing new in the academy and indeed in science and industry in general. A focus on speed and rapid progress has been with us for at least two centuries. However, Vostal points out that “the positive virtues of speed have metamorphosed into a new form of social evil in the  present conditions of oppressive ‘acceleration society’”, which “results in the experience of  time-shortage and hurry sickness”.

Vostal asks whether slowing down is the answer, as advocated for example by the ‘slow science’ movement. He is not entirely convinced that this is the right way to go. Instead, he considers another option “akin to scholarly time autonomy, enabling them [academics] to determine how temporal resources should be used.”

This is a nice thought, but can it work in a context where academic and professional autonomy is being gradually eroded? As Vostal says “one wonders whether anyone at all can resist the oppressive nature of late modern fast time. In order to resist academic hurry sickness, it would perhaps have to be those academics holding senior administrative positions who need to legislate the principle of scholarly time autonomy as an explicit political demand – and perhaps as an ethical principle integral to the education and science governance.”

Acceleration and responsibility

This brings us back to RRI. Can RRI and some of the governance and ethical principles that it entails be made entirely compatible with a culture of speed and acceleration? Can the circle be squared between RRI-inspired reflection, dialogue, engagement, inclusion and so on (activities that demand time) and bringing products rapidly to market? In a way RRI seems to be at the eye of an accelerating time vortex. Can it withstand being swept away by it? One way to prevent this might be more explicit reflection on the issues of both time/acceleration and autonomy within RRI.

Should respect for academic time and respect for academic autonomy be part of RRI? Both in terms of scholarly time autonomy, and, perhaps even more importantly, scholarly research autonomy – in particular autonomy over the ‘selection of research topics’ ? At the moment both are endangered not only by the arrival of an ‘accelerated academy’, but also by the emergence of an industrialised and ‘marketised academy’. These developments make it even more important to re-examine a persistent tension within the RRI agenda which was noted as early as 2012, when the first synbio roadmap was being written, namely “that there is still a tendency to present these issues as matters of promoting public acceptance, accelerating innovation and maximising economic growth and too little attention is given to the complexities and uncertainties of the innovation process”.

The question for social scientists and natural scientists working together under the banner of RRI is: Are social scientists trying to engage in RRI with their natural science colleagues just (perceived as) “time thieves” slowing down the synbio “productivity ninjas”, to use some of the wonderful metaphors created in Vostal’s blog post? Or can we find a more collaborative rhythm? We shall find out over the next few years, as social scientists continue working with their natural science colleagues, stakeholders, students and members of the public in the six synthetic biology research centres that have been established in the UK. Only time will tell.

(Thanks to Harry Ferguson for bringing Vostal’s blog post to my attention)

[This Making Science Public post also contributes to my social science work on the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre. You can find other posts on synthetic biology here]

Image: Pixabay

Posted in Politicsresponsible innovationscience and politicsScience Policysynthetic biology