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Copyright: ESB Professional

The many lives of Responsible Research and Innovation

RRI has been successful in creating spaces where the division of moral labour can be discussed and negotiated

In the May 2016 special issue of Euroscientist on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), Jean-Pierre Alix in his editorial wondered whether RRI was a new buzzword or a vision of modern science policy, vouching for the latter. The piece emphasised the need for all stakeholders, including the many publics–plural–to be involved in research and innovation. I would agree that being more inclusive when choosing the direction of research is a good thing, in principle. However, I would also argue that the interest towards RRI has all the trappings of a fashion, particularly in and around Brussels–specifically, at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

A fashion?

As a term, and as a focus issue, RRI has experienced a rapid rise in popularity since 2009. In 2014, it was included as a cross-cutting issue in Horizon 2020 funding scheme, despite being still relatively undefined. This interest for RRI has led to the development of a secondary industry of RRI conferences and workshops, building on the funding available through Horizon 2020.

But the attraction towards RRI is now slowly fading away, now that Commissioner Moedas is pushing an alternative acronym, namely the three Os: Open Innovation, Open Science, and Openness to the World.

I must confess that I am a willing participant in that fashion. I have been involved with the Horizon 2020 advisory group on Science With and For Society (SwafS), which also covers RRI. But I also want to keep some distance and look at RRI as sociologist, who also happens to be a participant.

Different dynamics

So what do I see? First, the RRI fashion is reflected in the way various actors like to refer to RRI or to responsible development of new technologies like nanotechnology. Thus, they create legitimation for their activities and, in turn, strengthen their “social licence to operate.” These actors are research funding agencies–including charitable foundations–and research performing organisations as well as government agencies and industrial actors. Their involvement reinforces the status of RRI and contributes to a bandwagon effect.

I also witness substantial RRI-related activities. Research funding organisations, such as the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), have created a framework for Responsible Research and Innovation used to select projects and monitor their progress. The Dutch Research Council NWO also has a dedicated funding program MVI (Societally Responsible Innovating), now often referred to as RRI, which started earlier than the present fashion.

In parallel, RRI-related declarations and codes of conduct have also been developed by research consortia in emerging scientific and technological domains, such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering. These may well have some effects. What is more, individual scientists and technologists are now persuaded to be a bit more reflexive about what they are doing and what implications might be.

The key point is that there are various RRI dynamics occurring at different levels of the research process, which are interacting with each other. This leads RRI actors to adopt new patterns of behaviour and to new institutional arrangements which emerge and sediment. This means that when the fashion of RRI comes to pass, there will still be something left–be it called RRI or another name.

Next challenges

Digging a little deeper, I note that the new trend of referring to RRI has become fashionable because it resonates with the ongoing concerns related to the role of science, particularly in society. We should investigate this resonance and make sure it is addressed. In doing so, it may be that other labels than the umbrella term RRI are appropriate. Commissioner Carlos Moedas’ three Os is one example of an alternative label. I have also recently explored the possibility of using the labels ‘inclusive innovation’ and ‘due diligence’–now as a responsibility of scientists and innovators–in my keynote address to the Synenergene Forum in Amsterdam in June 2016.

Underneath these labels and the activities they cover, there is a concern about the present divisions of moral labour in our societies with respect to science, technology and innovation. In particular, there is a concern about how the roles and responsibilities of various actors are attributed and how these operate. RRI, even as a passing fashion, has been successful in creating spaces where the division of moral labour can be discussed and negotiated. RRI’s successors, regardless of the form they take, should fulfil that functionn too. This guidling principle could become a key part of a science policy for the 21st century.

Arie Rip

Arie is emeritus professor of philosophy of science and technology in the School of Management and Governance of the University of Twente, The Netherlands.

Featured image credit: ESB Professional via Shutterstock

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