This week I attended an evening session a UCL on Responsible Research & Innovation (RRI). The terminology is current but essentially this is the topic of ethical research – although there was some debate about the origins of the word ‘Responsible’ versus ‘Continual Response’.
It was a though provoking pitch from a number of academic experts from a variety of sectors, including finance.
Fortunately there was enough conflict and consensus within the panel to take away a balanced perspective. In terms of RRI practice there seemed to be many examples of scientific development where researches are identifying issues and translating these into risks and implications. However, there was some uncertainty about the timeliness of RRI interventions. For example, if RRI is best invoked early on in the research cycle or at the point at which the proximity of the science is close to application.
There is certainly a conundrum around the burden of RRI – arguably researchers should operate agnostically and amorally as it is the social (not scientific) use of innovation that generates ethical issues. Given that research is already very challenging there is a risk that RRI will be rejected as an additional responsibility or interpreted as a ‘tick box’ exercise.
My concern is that there is a more fundamental flaw. That is, unless there is universal acceptance of RRI, those who work under regimes where there is no respect for social responsibility will have an advantage when it comes to innovation. It can be argued that RRI will help identify market failures but this is little incentive for the research community when offset against the effort.
My view was shared with one of the panellists that industry needs to take more responsibility. We are all familiar with the notion of Corporate Social Responsibility but this rarely extends beyond the environment and supply chains. Imagine if industry had to consider the wider societal impact of its products and services in the same way. For example, it resonated that the financial sector was busy developing electronic payments (in isolation of each other) and this was both marginalising the poorest citizens but also contributing to the creation of a control network around personal finances and trading.
At one juncture the session seemed to converge on redefining the actual essence of RRI which was touted as ‘Democracy in Science’. As an active member of the public dialogue project ‘Sciencewise’ I much prefer this definition as it pushes the message of early engagement of the public in Science foresight work. But it got me thinking that even this method of public dialogue is still very artificial and does not necessarily reconnect the real world with the lab.
At this point I recall my days working for the Consumers’ Association labs in Milton Keynes. This was a lab with a difference – scientific tests were conducted on early lifecycle technologies but always with a view to the end use and user. I remember my boss would always take a new gadget home, to try on the train or in a real life situation before making any sort of commendation. This was such an easy and obvious step which often resulted in discovering things we would never normally uncover – such as headphone cables which were too short or phone buttons that would get triggered by items of clothing.
So how could we bridge these RRI shortcomings and create a fertile environment for democracy in science? The jury is out but I have some ideas…
For example, I see no reason for researchers to worry about morale responsibility long as their research has an open window when it comes to its application or productisation. The division of labour in this model (see framework) is that the research community is only burdened with the anticipation of potential societal issues and that the reflection, engagement and action is handled mostly by others. In this sense, I mean a requirement for industry to undertake an ethical equivalent of CE Marking. In other words, attain an independent assessment of responsible innovation based on known issues before the market can consume a product of any particular science in a specific use for high impact innovation.
Engagement doesn’t have to be burdensome either, if we know public attitudes in terms of the tolerable limits of a science causing harm, we might predict or simulate public reaction to simple issues at that point. However, there will always be specific conditions and concerns (e.g. ‘erodes the need to eat’) that will need further debate and discovery.
Assessments don’t have to be binding either. If, as a consumer, I am presented with a measure of potential societal impact between using Bitcoin versus Apple Pay then it might just change my behaviour.