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René von Schomberg: Innovation is not inherently good

Science is not neutral. It can have both positive and negative consequences. Scientists increasingly have to face the ethical dilemma of the consequences of their research. And, thus, their responsibility in science governance. In the 80’s and 90’s, controversies surrounding science and technology have taken the form of bioethics debates. They have involved, among others, biology, genetics, or reproductive techniques. This was followed by questioning over the broad use of nanotechnologies in various day-to-day uses. These examples show that the negotiation of responsibility between scientists and the outside world is still a crucial issue in modern research.

René von Schomberg is an agricultural scientist and philosopher working for the European Commission on research and innovation policy. He was at the origin of the current concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Specifically, he defines RRI as follows: “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view on 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)” in this article.

In this podcast interview, EuroScientist asked him to explain RRI, in his own words. These words represent his personal views and are based on his own academic publications.

This interview complements the presentation of what RRI means, as outlined in various opinion pieces reflecting diverse perspectives from people involved in RRI, included in this special issue.

In this interview, von Schomberg refers to precursors movements, which appeared in the committees studying the introduction of nanotechnologies. Some of the characteristics, such as “the ethical, legal and social implications, the incorporation of safety evaluation, the identification of risks or regulatory needs, the involvement of stakeholders, and international dialogue,” are still present in the current working definition of RRI outlined above.

But one of the main differences is that “the focus is not on a single technology, but rather on an integration of reflexions that could steer the innovation process,” he explains.

Von Schomberg’s idea of responsible innovation “comes from the idea that innovation does not serve a priori a societal end. Innovation is not inherently good as the predominant ideology goes.”

He thinks that “governments are one actor among many others involved in the innovation process” and that “we have to have stakeholders’ participation in innovation process, but we want to go a step further in RRI seeking a commitment to societal desirable goal.” The challenge, he concludes, is to have “NGOs and industry working together on a social motivational issue.

Interview by Sabine Louët, Editor, EuroScientist

Podcast editing Luca Tancredi Barone, freelance science journalist based in Barcelona, Spain

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Fondazione Giannino Bassetti (von Schomberg is on the left)

Go back to the Special Issue: RRI Overview

Sabine Louët

Former editor at EuroScientist
Sabine has a passion for all things related to European research. A physicist by training, she has been covering stories in life science, the physical sciences, technology, policy and innovation for the past 20 years. She was previously the news editor at Nature Biotechnology. She was also involved in the creation of AlphaGalileo. She is the Founder of SciencePOD translating complex science and tech concepts into high-quality articles written in simple language.
Sabine Louët

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