A year (and a bit) in responsible innovation

I know it’s too late for one of those retrospective/prospective new year pieces, but here’s mine, prompted by Andrew Maynard’s recent mention of Responsible Innovation. (Apologies that this appears solipsistic. It is as much a diary entry as a blog post).

I’ve spent the last 18 months working on the idea of Responsible Innovation – what it might mean, where it might come from, how to know it when we see it and how to put it into practice. There is a tendency for researchers in any area to see their topic growing in importance as they give it more of their attention. But I am convinced that, over the last year or so, the small world of research policy has started talking about Responsible Innovation. The capital letters are important. As one of the people implicated in developing and selling the (capitalised) idea of Responsible Innovation, this excites and troubles me. I want my research to be used. I want my ideas to travel. But I wonder whether people are using a TED-talk version of the idea. I wonder whether, when people move the idea of Responsible Innovation into their world, they leave behind much of its necessary conceptual baggage and instead just use the banner. After all, who’s in favour of irresponsible stagnation?

I began in the summer of 2011, hired as a senior research fellow to work with a wonderful duo of Richard Owen at Exeter (a professor of Responsible Innovation, no less) and Phil Macnaghten at Durham, who I had worked with on nanotechnology for a few years. This was initially a holiday from my day job at the Royal Society, which I reflected on (again, solipsistically) in this paper. They generously kept my job open for me, but I got too attached to the freedoms of my academic holiday. So I never went back. I immediately spent a month on a holiday from my holiday as a visiting fellow at the Edinburgh Genomics Network, where I did this talk, among other things, looking at the links between Responsible Innovation and my previous work on upstream engagement.

The project that Richard and Phil had been funded for was a short six-month (this became nine months, then fifteen months) burst to develop a framework for Responsible Innovation that the Research Councils could use in their decision-making.  It had been prompted by the EPSRC’s involvement in a public dialogue exercise on Synthetic Biology. Rather than just shelve the report, EPSRC had admitted openly that, in the light of public concerns about the direction of Syn Bio, they needed to consider their own responsibilities as funders. Syn Bio had already been a sort of Responsible Innovation test case. The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation had been set up as an experimental collaboration between scientists, engineers and social scientists.  And while opinions differed about exactly why it was happening, there was a shared interest among all of the participants in ideas of responsible development, whatever that might mean, and a shared willingness to engage constructively, rather than follow their US equivalent’s journey into acrimony.

I began talking to Syn Bio researchers and others funded by EPSRC who were all interested in making sense of responsible innovation in their own domains: Roboticists like Alan Winfield, who is rewriting the laws of robotics to reflect them back on researchers themselves; the FRRIICT team who are looking at responsible innovation in ICTs, bringing together socially-minded technologists with technologically-minded others; Richard Jones at Sheffield – a rare Fellow of the Royal Society that is given to quoting sociologists of science and occasionally delivering brilliant talks on responsibility and nanotechnology.

In May 2011, I chaired a session at this conference, at which the European Commission announced their intention to redirect their science and society efforts to something called ‘responsible research and innovation’. The concept had been elucidated by René Von Schomberg and quickly moved into policy reality. For many of us who had been involved in arguments for public engagement with science for years without much policy purchase, the conference seemed to provide a clarity of purpose. I was asked to join a group at the Commission to develop a policy for Responsible Research and Innovation. We’ve done our bit. Let’s see how that goes. 

(The book that begun with conversations at this conference, containing thoughts from Rene, Arie Rip, us and others, will be released in 2013).

In January 2012, courtesy of the UK Foreign Office, we visited colleagues from Arizona State University at their DC office. ASU people such as Dave Guston, Dan Sarewitz, Erik Fisher and Jamey Wetmore have been thinking about responsible innovation in a US context for almost a decade. And as part of a massive National Science Foundation Centre for Nanotechnology and Society, they have been experimenting with making it happen by injecting social scientists into research labs, holding deliberative exercises and more.

In April 2012, the Danish Government took up the term for the conference on science and dialogue that they set up as part of their EU presidency. I was asked to be the rapporteur. Here’s the report. I was delighted to hear the Danish Science Minister talk about the need to move from creating the ‘best science in the world’ to the ‘best science for the world’. It will be a while before a UK Science Minister is brave enough to agree.

At around the same time, a particular issue arrived at the door of another Research Council. Anti-GM protesters had threatened to tear up an imminent trial of GM Wheat at Rothamsted Research, a large BBSRC facility in Hertfordshire. I was asked to advise them on whether a public dialogue exercise would be a good idea. My conclusion is that it would have been disingenuous. In the end, the protest was a damp squib, but questions of responsibility in innovation remained in the air (for longer, we were assured than GM wheat pollen).

Another major science governance story of late 2011/2012 became the centrepiece for our Responsible Innovation thinking.  The SPICE project – one of the world’s first big research projects in the controversial area of geoengineering – became a test case for Responsible Innovation. The SPICE team have been not just receptive but hugely proactive in helping me work out what a responsible approach to geoengineering research might look like. And the project has become a really important example of why even apparently harmless research projects can raise deep questions about ethics and responsibility. This has no doubt helped our work to get some sort of traction within the Research Councils. The report that we wrote for EPSRC, which we will publish soon, was taken to EPSRC council and will hopefully manifest in some important procedural changes there.

Looking ahead to 2013, I have a new job as a lecturer at UCL. I’ve always thought that you don’t really understand something until you’ve taught it, so I’m seeing whether Responsible Innovation makes sense to students. We’re one of the only places in the country that teaches undergraduate Science and Technology Studies, and we’re creating new MSc programmes from September. Exciting times.

I’m delighted to say that ESRC have agreed to fund more work with SPICE, so I’ll continue to work on geoengineering. Meanwhile, Responsible Innovation is flourishing elsewhere too. The European projects funded from the first wave of proposals will be gearing up. The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation has become the even larger Flowers consortium, and the social scientists have been asked to “embed the principles of responsible innovation in translating the research into impact”. Good luck to us all. 


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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4 Responses to A year (and a bit) in responsible innovation

  1. Ali TT says:

    I went to Richard Jones’ talk at Nottingham, which I thought set a challenge to (academic) scientists to think about the paths and pitfalls in translating their research. Prof George Chen (the man pictured right on the photo on the Nottingham website) asked how could scientists be good innovators when they are actually trained and paid to be inventors? Often the innovation of academic research is taken on by others, primarily industry or commercial partners, and academics are not necessarily skilled/trained in working in a more commercial environment.

    It is good to hear you teach STS to undergraduates, but do you teach STS to undergraduate science students?

  2. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks Ali. The new expectations of scientists certainly impose a new set of questions about expertise and the division of labour, to which should be added questions about the division of moral labour.

    And yes we do indeed teach STS to science undergraduates. Although never as many as we would like. My course last term on Governing Emerging Technologies had about half STS students, half natural science undergrads.

  3. Hi, a nice article that really gives an idea of the expansion that work on Responsible Innovation is undergoing. I put a link to your article on the Bassetti Foundation website. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Can Scientists Engage Critically with Capitalism? | Reasonable Excuse

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