Responsible research and innovation
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 introduce practical and conceptual aspects of RRI in meetings and workshops;
- We consult with the Digital Life funded research projects and support them in implementing their own commitments to responsible innovation actions;
- We support the management of the Digital Life research school and contribute to its educational initiatives;
- We bring together life scientists with researchers from the humanities and social sciences who investigate RRI-aspects of new and emerging technologies.
We also attend to questions like:
- What does the Norwegian Research Council’s RRI framework imply for the field of biotechnology in Norway?
- What social challenges should biotechnological research address?
- What kind of future society does Norwegian biotechnology want to enable?
- How does the Norwegian context invite engagement and participation?
About Responsible Research and Innovation
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a policy that guides funding, research and innovation activities.
Why do we need RRI?
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 Research Council Norway's framework for RRI
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.
- The dimension of anticipation conveys that actors in science and innovation should map the plausible effects of their innovations, intended as well as unintended ones, and develop socially robust strategies to prevent harmful and undesirable outcomes.
- The dimension of inclusion encourages research and innovation actors to get in touch with potential future users and other concerned actors. They can provide valuable insights into contexts of application as well as their opinions on desirable research trajectories.
- The dimension of reflexivity invites scientists to evaluate their own moral, political and social assumptions as these, too, influence the choice of research problems, methodology and innovation design.
- The dimension of responsiveness urges scientists to change research and innovation trajectories if the feedback from stakeholders or public opinion show that present goals and planned actions are contrary to social needs, or are ethically unacceptable. The underlying question all researchers and innovators should ask themselves is: what kind of a future do we want to create through research and innovation?
This framework points to three challenges that RRI throw up for the research being done within these programmes (see Strand et al 2015):
- RRI requires new forms of knowledge and skills – for scientists, innovators, and for stakeholders;
- Institutions must adjust how they govern research and innovation in order to make space for those new forms of knowledge and skills;
- RRI requires the governance of research and innovation to target the process (how) as well as the products (what) of innovation. Legitimacy is as important a goal of science governance as is safety.
Frequently asked questions
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.
How to make time and space for RRI?
RRI may be experienced as just one more extra task that takes away time from research. But this should not be the case. Employed rightly, it is an integrated part of research that ensures good science. Whether your investment in RRI will produce tangible benefits for your research depends on the question: what do I want to get out of RRI? It challenges you to specify in advance what you intend to learn from an RRI activity. It might be a good idea to plan for (midway) point where decisions can be taken about emerging questions that affect the research process. Lessons from RRI activities can feed into this process and make your research more responsive to its societal context.
Do I need an “RRI-person”?
As demands to demonstrate the uptake of RRI in funding applications have increased, natural scientists have been reaching out to social sciences and humanities (SSH) researchers with an invitation to join a funding application. Without any doubt, SSH researchers possess relevant expertise to design research projects that are responsive to their societal context. Note that RRI is as new to the SSH as to the natural sciences. Moreover, finding new research partners and building interdisciplinary teams take time. Importantly, RRI is not the sole responsibility of your SSH partner, it concerns the entire project consortium.
How can I clearly communicate my RRI ambitions?
In a grant application you might be asked to describe how your proposed research integrates RRI at the very end of the document, yet you should show the implications of RRI also in sections relating to the technical aspects of your research.
- Is the objective of an RRI action clear and meaningful in the context of the research?
- Are these actions part of the project plan (deliverable and milestones), have an assigned budget and allocated human resources?
- Be concrete about stakeholder partnerships, e.g. by submitting letters of support.
- Is the measure feasible and how do you propose to mitigate implementation risks?
- Demonstrate responsiveness: how will you implement lessons learned from doing RRI within the project consortium?
At which stage of proposal writing is RRI to be planned and implemented?
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.
Why RRI and not (more) research ethics?
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.
How is RRI related to addressing societal challenges?
Current research policy incentivizes researchers to address societal challenges (see the Lund declaration; the UN sustainable development goals; the Digital Life strategy). This is reflected in RRI’s mandate to be responsive to societal needs, challenges and values. Developing research that is responsive to a societal challenge requires solid understanding of the technical, political and economic aspects.
What does engagement or inclusion in the RRI-framework mean?
It is difficult to imagine what non-scientists might contribute to a research project. However, when specific technologies and scientific practices affect the livelihoods, autonomy, and values of concrete groups of people, the latter tend to develop nuanced and informed views, not only about the risks and benefits of a technology, but also about its innovation process and distributional consequences. It is worth to involve people in order to foster socially robust scientific results. It is a myth that people resist technology because they fail to understand the underpinning science.
- Creating arenas for inclusion (e.g. an advisory board involving affected and interested individuals of different backgrounds and functions, or a stakeholder event) and fostering the transparency of the research process are important to build trust in the research enterprise, but it would be a misconception to expect that public engagement should foster acceptance of a particular technology (i.e. make others adopt your values), for the issue isn’t whether somebody is for or against innovation, rather what innovation, brought about in which way and for whose benefit.
- Interacting with (present or future) stakeholders of one’s research output can help researchers in developing an imagination for application contexts, learn from plausible future users about their design requirements, and build a more sophisticated understanding of the concrete ways work in the lab can connect to a societal issue.
- Be aware that attracting the attention and cooperation of civil society organizations, other professionals, and companies is difficult and time consuming because they, too, are busy people with limited resources. If you want their participation, make a concrete proposition about what they stand to gain from such an interaction and what you hope to learn from them. If your value proposition is not credible or concrete, they will politely decline or not respond in the first place.
What does the RRI-framework mean with anticipation?
RRI stresses the importance of developing an imagination of plausible trajectories (i.e. anticipation) for societal impact as results leave the laboratory to be potentially taken up in innovation processes or come to underpin policy advice. Anticipation is not the same as a prediction (field X will have delivered breakthrough Y in 5 years) nor as a promise (my research will revolutionize clinical practice). Instead, it focuses on possible and plausible scenarios how results might be used, what might go wrong, and reflections on which unexpected events can occur.
- Anticipation is an ongoing process that does not end with the submission of the grant application.
- Anticipation could cover an entire research field (e.g. synthetic biology) in which case the group of participants in the anticipation process will be large and diverse;
- More realistically in the context of a research project, anticipation could be implemented in a project consortium meeting (or during a grant writing meeting) in form of a brainstorming on which use contexts and actors the project’s output might plausibly interest or concern within the next few years.
The European Commission has its own RRI framework. How does it differ from the one proposed by the Research Council Norway?
“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’.
- Public Engagement is about creating opportunities for all societal actors to participate in the definition of research agendas (e.g. to define what a societal challenge); to foster mutual learning; and to ensure that innovation agendas do not run counter to public values.
- Gender equality aims to remedy the underrepresentation of women in research and innovation organisations. It also calls for attending to gender dimensions in research.
- Science education calls for initiatives to create interest among young people to pursue a career in science; to implement RRI into higher education curricula; and to foster general science literacy for informed citizens.
- Open Access aims at offering free online access to the results and data of publicly funded research.
- Ethics pertains to traditional research ethics, to the respect of fundamental rights, and to the respect of social values akin to the notion of responsiveness.
- Governance reminds policymakers of their responsibility to foster research policies that take up the preceding RRI 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).
Resources for responsible research
This page offers a list of resources on RRI. It will grow over time. Is there anything we missed? Drop us a line.
What you need to know about responsible research and innovation in the Digital Life Initiative
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).
The case for RRI
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.
Inspiration for how you can leverage RRI in your research project
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.