Lessons from the case study of the UK EPSRC Framework for Responsible Innovation
It’s not that the ideas behind responsible research and innovation (RRI) are – of themselves – hard to grasp. There’s almost a “so what – aren’t we doing that already?” feel about them. But taken as a whole, the aims, the practices, the involvement of diverse stakeholders and the engagement with key policy agendas mean that RRI could transform the way the research and innovation processes work. It could bring their results much closer to what our fellow citizens really want and need. The challenge, then, is how to make the various actors understand what’s needed, when, and how to do it. In essence: how to bring RRI to life.
That’s where the RRI Tools project comes in. Over the course of this calendar year, RRI Tools is rolling out a series of training workshops across Europe, making use of its 19 hubs to cover all of the European Union. These workshops introduce what we mean by responsibility in research and innovation. It also looks at the opportunities that the involvement of a wide variety of partners can bring and identify the obstacles to making RRI work. The project’s Toolkit enables those looking to overcome those obstacles to find the documents and tools they need.
The Toolkit contains a whole catalogue of “inspiring practices”, instances where key elements of RRI have been incorporated in practice in the research team’s work or in the business of commercialising the results into socially useful products. And for training purposes, several of these inspirational projects have been developed at length into what the RRI Tools team are calling “showcases”.
One of these is the Framework for Responsible Innovation that was put together by the United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC), one of the country’s major research funders and one that regularly sees its grant holders partnering with industry and commerce to generate products and services that have been socially inspired. Its AREA code – Anticipate, Reflect, Engage and Act – is designed to ensure that researchers and their commercial partners involve the right stakeholders at the right time, consider the possible risks as well as the benefits of what they are doing, think about what they can then do to change their work to avoid unintended downsides and then do something about it.
David Delpy was the chief executive of EPSRC at the time the Framework was being developed and introduced a few years ago. He was highly supportive of the efforts to bring his Research Council’s work more in line with what UK citizens needed. “To me, RRI conveys something that any good researcher thinks of as part of the research that they are undertaking. Being a researcher means having good ideas but also thinking of the potential impact of research and the potential consequences of research. I don’t see it as a separate item that is divorced from research, it is part of being a good researcher, especially if we are spending public money,” he says.
The development of the Framework holds many lessons for others interested in RRI. So it’s a good training showcase. For example, it shows a research funder reacting positively to public criticisms of scientific research, particularly around genetically modified foods and possible concerns about nanotechnology. It shows how the partnership between EPSRC’s Societal Issues Panel and social science researchers working on the social challenges new technology could productively come together, rather than–as is often the case–the sociologists being seen solely as negative critics of the science and engineering research community and industry.
The showcase also highlights the importance of preparation if traditional research funders are to embrace RRI. Alison Wall, EPSRC’s associate director for building leadership points to the way in which the institution’s ruling Council had already seen the Societal Issues team tackle problems around information and communication technology. She explains: “This meant that Council had a good idea of the approach we would take. They could be comfortable with is as we were not going for rules and regulations, and specific grant conditions, but producing a framework for researchers to use.”
RRI Tools’ showcase on the EPSRC’s Framework draws out how, in the case of synthetic biology, the calls for funding included elements of RRI advice and practice to be part of the proposals that would receive money to set up multi-million centres for this challenging new area of research. Some projects also included social science research to follow the way in which the science research teams followed through on EPSRC’s Framework. The showcase also highlights a project to help people with restricted mobility that started with a public engagement exercise to find out just what wheelchair users would really like to do.
For training, the showcase can be used simply as an inspiring practice, a chance for workshop participants to “see how it’s done”. But there are also exercises that groups and individuals can carry out; there’s nothing like doing it yourself to find out how much you really understand. If you’re interested, look out for training near you on the RRI Tools website.
Steve is professor of science communication and planetary science, Departments of Science and Technology Studies as well as Physics and Astronomy at University College London, UK.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by The Open University
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