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22/07/2014

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Taking care of the future

Jack Stilgoe explains the need for responsible innovation.

Science and innovation are increasingly and unavoidably entangled in politics, economics and society.

The challenges we face – a familiar list including sustainability of the global environment, the health of its population, the security of food, water and energy and future sources of economic growth – all require radical innovation. But the more disruptive the research or the technology, the bigger the questions it brings.

Jack Stilgoe explains the need for responsible innovation.

Science and innovation are increasingly and unavoidably entangled in politics, economics and society.

The challenges we face – a familiar list including sustainability of the global environment, the health of its population, the security of food, water and energy and future sources of economic growth – all require radical innovation. But the more disruptive the research or the technology, the bigger the questions it brings.

We can never know in advance the implications of innovation, but it can and should be shaped. As new technologies emerge, they must bring society with them. Those involved in the governance of science and innovation now realise that, if they are to proceed with confidence, they must take a new approach to governance. People in UK Research Councils, the European Commission and elsewhere are starting to call this approach Responsible Innovation.

Different from public engagement

Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a number of important upstream engagement experiments that have revealed the questions members of the public think are important about the products, processes and purposes of their research: What are the likely benefits, and to whom? What else might happen? Who is controlling this? Why is this research taking place? What alternatives are there? Using processes of foresight, public engagement and interdisciplinary collaboration, Responsible Innovation asks scientists, funders and regulators to reflect and act upon these questions.

Public engagement has been too disconnected from policy. Rather than focussing on The Public, reinforcing the sense that they are somehow the problem, Responsible Innovation turns our attention towards innovation – how it is governed, who is responsible and what the alternatives might be.

Joining up

We know that science will not, left to its own devices, understand or govern its own implications. We have seen with GM crops in the UK and stem cell research in the US what happens if we ignore social and ethical questions as technology is under development. The backlash against research took both scientists and policymakers by surprise.

Over the last decade, countless experiments have taken place that aim, in different ways, to reshape processes of innovation to make them more responsible. We have seen public dialogue exercises on emerging science and technology from nanotechnology to stem cell research, from synthetic biology to geoengineering. We have seen groups of scientists come together to create new principles to govern their own research. And we have seen new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration between natural scientists, philosophers, social scientists, artists and others. These experiments have revealed particular things in particular areas of science and technology, but there has so far been no real attempt to join them up.

Opening up opportunities

Taking Responsible Innovation seriously demands radical changes to the way that research is funded. We need to free science policy from the silos of particular disciplines and encourage collaboration. While the need for Responsible Innovation seems clear, different individuals and institutions will approach it in different ways.

Some researchers may see the approach as yet another encroachment on their autonomy, or another set of bureaucratic hurdles. Policymakers may see the approach in tension with an imperative towards economic growth. We would seek to reassure both groups, and work with them to find a way forward.

Responsible Innovation should not be onerous. Nor should it impede innovation. Instead, it should open up new opportunities, build the capacity to explore these and provide resources to support them. At a time when researchers feel embattled by ever-louder calls for impact, research funding is flat or waning and priorities are redefined according to ‘grand challenges’, Responsible Innovation provides a coherent response that the scientific community can hopefully call their own.

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Jack Stilgoe
Jack Stilgoe is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is on Twitter @jackstilgoe and blogs at jackstilgoe.wordpress.com
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