What should responsible innovation look like in our society?

The emerging concept of responsible innovation is already taking hold in science policy and governance, writes Jonny Hankins. He argues for a multi-faced approach that emphasises reflexivity, involves public engagement from the outset and brings on board social scientists.

The phrase ‘responsible innovation’ is cropping-up ever more frequently in policy documents in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. It is also beginning to influence the governance of science. For example, it has begun to play a role both in regulatory and funding institutions, which have aimed towards similar goals though with different means.

While we might all have ideas of what irresponsible innovation might be according to our personal convictions and beliefs, deciding on what responsible innovation would be for a whole society might prove significantly more difficult.

Of course, innovation always has unforeseen consequences and is full of risk and uncertainty, which has historically led to the deployment of regulation aimed to manage such risks and uncertainties, for example in the control of genetically modified organisms.

The regulation side of policy can be pictured as a scale going from soft to hard, with soft regulation being self-governance or voluntary adoption of good practice and hard regulation relying on legal requirements and the enforcement of legal boundaries. Neither of the extremes is without problems, and most agree that policy must follow some kind of middle ground. The question is what exactly this should look like.

What many call for is adaptive governance. Traditionally innovation has been governed in a top down risk based manner, so decisions are made bearing in mind a measure of risk at any single point in a development process. One problem with this risk-based approach is that in order to debate decisions, those involved must be able in some way to quantify the risk that a certain process or product might pose for society.

This only tends to be possible once a process has been underway for some time and has reached some form of maturity that allows a vision of future use(s) that can then be assessed. It is extremely difficult to quantify risk and to draw parameters within which to operate early on in the research process.

An associated problem with this difficulty of forecasting potential problems is that as the process moves on and problems are revealed they become more difficult to rectify. They may not be reversible and there may also have been large economic investments made during the development of knowledge and technologies that now evidence these problems.

So regulation based on risk has proven an inadequate approach, at least on its own. But regulation isn’t the only mechanism through which science policy and responsible innovation might meet, since policy making itself can guide and shape how science operates.

One way in which the notion of responsible innovation has begun to have influence in this regard is via funding guidelines. For example, funding agencies in the EU and in the UK (for example the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) now require responsible research and innovation processes to be embedded within their funded projects.

Indeed, the European Commission has recently published its Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), Science and Technology Special Eurobarometer. So, although currently rather ill defined, the concept of responsible innovation has already found expression within and through many policy documents and is actively shaping how research and innovation is funded.

What may be needed for adaptive governance therefore is the addition of a more bottom-up form of regulation. Here those funding research have an important part to play, and the results are so far visible in the formalised requirements mentioned above. The EPSRC has for example tried out a “stage gating” process, with passage through the gate (and onto further funding) reliant upon the researchers’ ability to resolve ethical issues within their research.

Other proposals include maintaining research risk registers by engaging the public meaningfully in the very early stages of research and development (so-called ‘upstream engagement’) and, of course, self-regulation.

Self-regulation has often been criticised however as it may not lead to openness and accountability – much of which depends upon the deliberative process that leads to the creation of self-imposed and regulated rules of behaviour.

Within the university-led side of research (which tends to deal with the hard sciences) an interesting policy proposal has involved placing social scientists within hard sciences workplaces. There have been several examples of this practice put into action. This seems to be a policy approach that has concrete effects as a more reflexive environment in the laboratory seems to have an effect on decision making.

We might like to think of this as a participatory approach to responsible innovation policy. This approach can offer a great deal to policymakers and regulators as it may allow them and governing bodies access to the informal mechanisms of research-design, practice, and public perception, and could lead to better policymaking decisions.

Policymakers within funding institutions have started to put these kinds of ideas into action from the start of the innovation process, and it looks like a win-win situation. The social science involvement does not have to merely describe nor prescribe, but can inform policymakers and make the entire scientific process from policy design, to research design and practices more reflexive and hopefully more responsible.

Ultimately, then, for innovation and research to be responsible we need a multi-faced approach that embeds reflexivity into the heart of these practices, that looks at risks and is reflexive early on in the process and that makes use of interdisciplinary collaborations with social scientists.

  • The Journal of Responsible Innovation has recently published its first issue here.

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