Responsible Research and Innovation in action

As policy interest in Responsible Research and Innovation grows, those who are new to the discussion rightly ask what it might mean in practice. How do we know it when we see it? What does irresponsible research and innovation look like? My response is perhaps a bit unsatisfying. RRI is a work-in-progress, as are science, politics and society more broadly. This means that RRI is necessarily experimental and open-ended. Responsible science and responsible technologies will not just show themselves. But we can look at experiments that are taking place at various levels in various places, to see how the rules of research and innovation may be rewritten in more responsible ways. Here is my starting list of 13 RRI things I have found interesting. This is not to say that all of these things are unequivocally good. An important part of RRI is the surfacing of differences and political clashes around all of these things. But they seem to me to be interesting developments.

  1. CAMBIA – Open source biotechnology
  2. The Bermuda Principles of the Human Genome Project
  3. Jonas Salk refusing to patent the Polio Vaccine
  4. Joseph Rotblat leaving the Manhattan Project and starting Pugwash
  5. The MHRA’s Yellow Card Scheme – now opened up to members of the public as what Sheila Jasanoff would call a ‘technology of humility’  
  6. Berkeley Earth – an attempt to address issues in climate science
  7. The Biobank UK Ethics and governance council –
  8. The Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre – running public dialogue for the UK Government
  9. CSynBi and Flowers – multidisciplinary Synthetic Biology Research
  10. EPSRC’s framework for responsible innovation
  11. GSK’s involvement in Patent Pools for neglected diseases  and open innovation
  12. The Alzheimers Society QRD network – involving carers and patients in research funding and management
  13. The SPICE project – an early set of technical and social experiments in the world of geoengineering research (see my, ahem, book)

This list is inspired by a project in which I and colleagues at UCL are involved, called RRI TOOLS. It aims to develop a toolkit for responsible research and innovation that can be taken up by scientists, policymakers, companies and others. The inevitable imperfection with such a project is that it will tend to emphasise processes rather than outcomes. This is why, as with the SPICE project, the Polio Vaccine, Pugwash and the Bermuda Principles, we should also pay attention to situations in which people have responsibility thrust upon them. Systems of research and innovation are as likely to be responsibly shaped by accidents as by intentional efforts to increase public engagement and force disciplines to work together.

If you are reading this and have suggestions for more, please add them. I hope this unscientific sample also prompts questions about the criteria for selection, beyond my main one, which is ‘interestingness’.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a professor of science and technology policy in the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Responsible Research and Innovation in action

  1. Jack Stilgoe says:

    My colleague Kaatje Lomme has pointed out that the James Lind Alliance provides another excellent example. If you don’t know them, have a look…

  2. Thanks Jack, a nice idea and I look forward to seeing what others have to say.

    A couple of things pop up for me, about responsible innovation and profit, and responsibility and differences of opinion.

    We are looking more at the business side of things, and my inclination, like you, is to highlight areas where profit has been foregone for the public good, e.g. your GSK examples, (perhaps Skype could be another, though not sure if they were looking to make a profit in the end, and if that matters). But Responsible Innovation must surely also include the day to day approaches to innovation where profit is still important, but the organisations are looking to do what they do responsibly?

    It might then include companies such as Interface, famous for closed loop production of carpets, ( – can’t seem to add links to comments on Safari), some of the innovations M&S, Unilever, BT and many others are doing in various aspects of their innovations – in supply chain, data privacy, environmental sustainability etc.

    Perhaps BASF DialogueForumNano for example, where the chemical company involved stakeholders in detail in understanding concerns about their use of nanotechnologies and how they are produced). This was very well thought of by the stakeholders involved, though if more transparency about their products and systems for the outside world don’t accompany the project is it enough? How transparent if certain stakeholders with detailed knowledge of the company are have some confidence in their procedures?

    Ecover is another example where the organisation appears to be trying to innovate responsibly using synthetic biology for eco cleaning products, but the nature of the technology and perhaps their lack of openness about it from the earliest thinking has caused them to be accused of irresponsibility. I am not totally sure who is being responsible or irresponsible here, but could it be a responsible innovation if it dramatically cut environmental and social impacts, with strong health and safety embedded, but others don’t agree? But then is that poor stakeholder management irresponsible even if the majority of their customers are in favour, but a minority aren’t? (I have no idea if it will btw, it’s more the theory)

    Looking then at the other areas of controversy, is it possible to do responsible fracking, GM, food irradiation, artificial meat for example, which many consider an outrage, but others consider make a significant responsible contribution to society, despite the fact that certain groups and a % of individuals feel differently. Can you have responsible innovation where x% think it is irresponsible, even though it is conducted in a way which adheres to principles of responsibility, but that values sets differ, or trade offs are seen by some to be totally unacceptable. Do examples of those go on your list?

    I am wrestling with a Responsible Innovation Framework for Business at the moment, which is more in the style of more detailed expectations, like a Code, than the EPSRC framework which is very abstract, so these are the things that I am struggling with in thinking through what is responsible and what is irresponsible and what the components of responsibility might be.

    Look forward to hearing more!

  3. Pingback: Responsible Innovation – Jack Stilgoe | Subtle Engine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s