Science, technology and innovation shape the future. But what kind of future do we want? This question goes beyond science. And it guides our work at the Centre for Digital Life Norway.
Research and innovation in biotechnology happens in society. This is why a policy of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) underwrites all activities under the Digital Life Initiative. Because we are committed to a biotechnology that is mindful of its societal context, we are building an infrastructure to support responsible innovation activities within research projects and at the Centre for Digital Life Norway .
We also attend to questions like:
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a policy that guides funding, research and innovation activities.
Researchers in the humanities and social sciences have extensively studied how science works in practice, how it is governed, as well as how technological systems are maintained and their safety assessed. According to this scholarship, choices made in science – what issues merit investigation, how to translate an issue of societal concern into a researchable problem, even the analytical choices underpinning a basic science instrument – can have consequences beyond science as they become embedded into technologies and laws informed by science advice. Many of these choices are also about values – directly, as in the amount of funding allocated to cancer research as opposed to tropical diseases; indirectly because assays like genome sequencing reshape how we treat and make sense of illness.
Recognizing that science isn’t a world of its own but exists as part of a society with whom it has many, complex interactions confers a social responsibility upon science. RRI is not about assigning this responsibility, it exists with or without RRI, but it provides instruments that can guide decisions in science to make them more robust and aligned with what society wants, needs and is prepared to embrace.
There are a number of standards that govern research conduct like health and safety standards, ethics approval of experiments with animals and human subjects, and codes of research integrity. Unlike these standards (which it does not replace), RRI does not contain a moral code (e.g. ‘do no harm’), nor does it come with a checklist that defines responsible conduct. It is an open framework that points to practices (e.g. anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion etc.) that shall encourage researchers to not losing sight of the societal context. But it is crucial that these practices connect to decisions about how research problems are selected and investigated.
The Norwegian Research Council (RCN) has published a Framework for Responsible Innovation. The Centre for Digital Life is at the forefront in putting this framework into practice. But it is not alone. The same framework also applies to the large-scale technology programmes Biotek2021, Nano2021 and IKTPLUSS. The ideas behind the framework have been developed by Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten (2012) and also underwrite RRI initiatives at research councils in the UK (e.g. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). The framework provides four dimensions of RRI that scientists should relate to in order for their research and innovation to be deemed socially responsible.
This page provides some advice on how researchers can prepare themselves for when they are asked to demonstrate how they incorporate and respond to societal aspects of their research when applying for research funding.
RRI cuts across the entire research practice and drafting an RRI strategy as part of a research proposal ought to proceed in tandem with the scientific and technical aspects. It is advisable to start early and plan enough time to get help if needed.
We live in a technological culture which entails that science and technology cannot be applied without understanding their social context, nor that society can be understood without understanding the roles that science and technology play therein. Technologies carry values outside the reach of those who designed them and the effects of technological designs are dependent on context. Therefore, it might be difficult to assign moral or legal responsibility to specific people for downstream consequences that are beyond their control. Instead, it might be better to assess who takes responsibility for what responsibility at different nodes in the research and innovation system. Scientists are part of this system and consequently have a responsibility for actions under their control, even if we recognize that they do not fully control the research system's outputs and their consequences.
“Responsible Research and Innovation means that societal actors work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes, with the values, needs and expectations of European society.”
This is how the European Commission defines RRI. The Commission has been implementing RRI within its Horizon2020 programme as a cross-cutting aspect. In addition, the division “Science with and for Society” supports targeted measures around six ‘keys’.
Actions supported under these keys do not differ significantly from the RRI framework endorsed by the Research Council Norway. The substantive overlaps between the two frameworks are most apparent regarding the keys of public engagement and ethics. Gender equality may not be mentioned in the Norwegian RRI framework but is part of the research council’s requirements in funding applications. As a digital initiative, open access is a key topic at the Centre for Digital Life, notably through the support of the FAIR principles (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable).
This page offers a list of resources on RRI. It will grow over time. Is there anything we missed? Drop us a line.
The white paper "Digital Life – Convergence for Innovation" sets out the strategic vision behind the Digital Life initiative.
Responsible research and innovation (RRI) is a research policy. The Research Council Norway's definition of responsible research and innovation as it applies to the funding programmes BIOTEK20201, IKTPLUSS, NANO2021 and SAMANSVAR. This definition builds on the article "Developing a framework for responsible innovation" by Jack Stilgoe et al (paywalled). Stilgoe presents the framework's concepts in this talk (youtube).
Prof. Wiebe E. Bijker argues that RRI enables better research.
Prof. Ulrike Felt talks about RRI as a trial and error experiment in how scientists and other members of society come to shape their common future.
Prof. Roger Strand puts RRI into the context of sustainability.
Integrating responsible research and innovation in biotechnology research may benefit from social science and humanities expertise, write Ana Delgado and Heidrun Åm in PLOS Biology, but caution that a genuine commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration is required.
There are several websites that offer concrete advise to scientists (and other groups concerned by research policy) about to to implement RRI within research.
RRI tools is a comprehensive platform for all things RRI. It offers background material on RRI and hosts concrete tools, many of which were developed through projects funded by the European Commission. The Commission's RRI 'keys' are prominent because much of the website's content has been developed in Horizon2020 funded projects. See here for an explanation of the difference between the Norwegian and European definitions of RRI. For people who are new to RRI or to research policy, the volume of content on RRI tools might be intimidating.
If your main objective is to involve members of the public in your research, INVOLVE UK offers hands on advice in form of briefings, cases and templates. This is a health research focused resource, but many lessons can be adapted to other research contexts.
'Toolbox' for researchers, technology developers and engineers is a small but fine collection of tools that are broadly addressing how you can become aware of the downstream consequences of your research.
Have you ever wondered about the sex of the eukaryotic cell line you are working with? Gendered innovations provides cases and resources to consider sex and gender in research.
And if you are part of a team preparing for the iGEM competition or otherwise work in synthetic biology, head over to the iGEMers guide to the future to brainstorm through the societal aspects of your proposal. iGEM uses the idiosyncratic notion of 'human practices' and not RRI to talk about societal aspects, but there is no substantive difference.