Adopting a Responsible Innovation Policy

Social policy is tightly linked to all forms of innovation and in particular the ideas of ‘responsible innovation’, the term cropping up ever more frequently in policy documents. Both regulatory and funding institutions refer to the idea, aiming for similar goals through different means. This post will first offer an idea of what responsible innovation might be, before looking at variations within the different approaches adopted by various institutions.

We might all have ideas of what irresponsible might be according to our personal convictions and beliefs, but deciding upon what responsible innovation might look like from a societal point of view may prove more difficult. Innovation has unforeseen consequences and is full of risk and uncertainty, and this has historically led to the deployment of regulation. Regulation is only one side of policy however, as policy making itself possesses a strong steering capability, and it is this guiding capacity that is of interest to those studying and promoting ideas of responsible innovation.

The field of responsible innovation is still very new, and there is no single accepted definition in use. One of the most widely used however comes from Rene’ Von Schomberg of the Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)”.

Richard Owen and colleagues build upon this definition by saying that a responsible innovation process must be anticipatory, reflective, deliberative and responsive, all characteristics that could come from policy design. So responsible innovation is a reflexive process, not a thing. A responsible innovation policy aims to build reflexivity within the innovation process as well as steering it towards socially desirable ends.

We could think of current social policy practices as a kind of carrot and stick approach, the carrot being the lead to follow, and the stick being a stick, in the traditional sense of discipline, used to keep someone in line. The carrot involves various things, not least education into scientific and ethical thinking, but also works through funding guidelines. For example both the EU and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) require the embedding of responsible research and innovation processes within their funded projects and the European Commission has recently published its Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), Science and Technology Special Eurobarometer. Although currently rather ill defined, the concept of responsible innovation already finds expression within and through many policy documents.

The regulation side of policy can be pictured as lying on a scale that we could describe as going from soft to hard, with soft regulation being self or voluntary and hard relying on legal requirements and the enforcement of legal boundaries. Neither of the extremes are without problems, and most agree that policy must follow some kind of middle ground, the question is how?

Much current research has revolved around scientific innovation, although several organizations such as MATTER and the Bassetti Foundation work with businesses and politicians in order to effect actions and policies. 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, and this seems to be a policy approach that has concrete effects as a more reflexive environment in the laboratory seems to effect decision making.

We might like to think of this as a participatory approach to responsible innovation policy, and I personally believe that this approach can offer a great deal to policy makers 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 policy making decisions. Policy makers 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 policy makers and make the entire scientific process from policy design, to research design and practices more reflexive and hopefully more responsible.

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Jonny HankinsJonny Hankins is the Foreign Correspondent for Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, participates in the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation, and is the Responsible Innovation Editor for Innovation Excellence. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation in the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics in innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He lives in Boston, MA where he is also a musician, actor and street performer.

Jonny Hankins




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