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Collective responsibility towards research and innovation’s risks and new ethical dilemmas

Research and innovation constantly change our world. From the Internet and mobile phones, to climate change and new cancer treatments, science and technology have the potential to transform our lives. These developments also create new risks and new ethical dilemmas. Responsible research and innovation (RRI) seeks to bring these issues into the open. It also aims to anticipate the consequences and directions of research and innovation. In parallel, it involves society in discussing how science and technology can help shape the kind of world and future people want.

Why is RRI necessary? Increasingly powerful science and technology have granted humans unprecedented scope to intervene in our surroundings. Examples range from altering ecosystems and the Earth’s climate at the global scale, to manipulating the minute building blocks of matter and life itself. In addition, as a society, we face great challenges, from healthy ageing to sustainability, and from global health to resource security. Research and innovation have the power to tackle these challenges, but their success is not guaranteed.

Research and innovation will always, at least partly, be unpredictable. However, this does not justify behaving in an irresponsible manner. Such developments profoundly affect all our lives. Therefore, understanding and taking responsibility for these developments go well beyond just science and scientists. The direction and purpose of research and innovation, the distribution of its outcome—be it positive and negative—, the uses of new technologies and maintaining a focus on solving pressing problems are matters we, as a society, need to discuss and choose together.

This brings us to the question of what responsible research and innovation should look like. RRI is not a magic bullett. It will vary across institutions, cultures, scientific disciplines and technological areas. However, it will have one key, central feature: it will put the needs of ordinary citizens at its centre. Companies will still need to make profits in a market economy. But RRI will re-orientate research from ‘can this make money?’ to ‘how can this fulfil the needs of society within the market?’

So how can we uncover the priorities and concerns of fellow citizens? Over the last few decades, we have seen many experiments that foster involvement of the public in discussions and policy decisions regarding science, collaboration between scientists, ethicists and social scientists, open source and user-driven innovation, citizen science and more besides. We should encourage such experiments, join them up and demand a response from the institutions that fund, regulate and govern science and innovation.

In summary, RRI means experimenting further and improving upon existing practice. It means paying close attention to current developments—be they scientists’ positive efforts to take responsibility for emerging technologies, or institutional and cultural barriers that are stopping progress.

RRI also encompasses research ethics, gender and other forms of inclusion, open access to scientific data and publications and scientific education. Scientists and innovators should be encouraged to take responsibility for the futures they help shape. But the responsibility is not individual, nor is it theirs alone. The challenge is to find collective ways to take care of the future.

Jack Stilgoe

Lecturer in Social Studies of Science, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, UK

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Sebastien Wiertz

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