Toward a Paradigm Shift in Research and Innovation Policy

René von SchombergOn Friday, July 5th, the offices of the Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship were visited by Dr. René von Schomberg, scientific and policy officer at the European Commission, visiting in his capacity as a scholar and proponent of Responsible Research and Innovation.

Dr. von Schomberg’s presentation, “Toward a Paradigm Shift in Research and Innovation Policy”, proposed a framework for the establishment and funding of research agendas. According to this view, research initiatives and choices should be guided by normative objectives (socially desirable and acceptable ends), rooted in principles of responsibility. In particular, he also highlighted the importance of identifying and addressing, in a unified and deliberate manner, grand societal and environmental challenges. The goal of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), defined by Dr. von Schomberg as “a transparent, interactive, process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other, with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its (marketable) outcomes and impact”, is to steer research in an “issue-oriented manner”, and increased accountability on the part of the governmental bodies to achieve “right outcomes” in addressing the challenges identified.

Dr. von Schomberg’s presentation focused on embedding the dimensions of Responsible Innovation in research agenda setting from the outset to enable normatively motivated research. He considered the differences between the current status quo, where research activities tend to be highly specialised and isolated, often lacking common objectives of societal relevance, and the potential for RRI to provide a common frame and motivation for research efforts drawn from normative anchor points. The latter, he suggested, had the potential for greater positive outcomes, as individual research activities could be coordinated in a manner that was efficient and mutually beneficial.

It is useful, when contemplating a moral imperative as a motivation for action, to consider its contrary. “Irresponsible innovation” may refer to situations whereby a technology fails to be accepted, or to meet its potential. This could be as a result of mismanagement,  poor communication, or lack of proper knowledge of societal and ethical implications, rather than through deliberately nefarious intent. Dr. von Schomberg illustrated this point with references to recent examples of technologies failing to be accepted in Europe as a result of one or a combination of these factors, such as  genetically modified food in Europe, or the IRIS biometric scanners in UK airports. He also used the example of the electronic patient record system as an example of that happens when ethical or societal implications are only considered in the late stages of design. Although the system -built at great cost- functioned as intended, fundamental ethical issues, such as the protection of patient privacy and the confidentiality of medical records, were not considered until the later stages of the project. As a result it was finally rejected and abandoned by the government. However, he also noted that the failures do not necessarily have to lie with the research effort. Political pressure can also play a role in this, with “policy pull”, where a technology is forced out there before is technically capable of completing the task expected of it (such as the attempt to introduce biometric passports in the Netherlands) being a prime example.

Connected to RRI, Dr. von Schomberg also introduced and spoke of “frugal innovation”, whereby innovations may be developed in such a manner that seeks large-scale social improvement and consider issues of costs (low income markets), greater accessibility, and widespread diffusion as a priority In particular, he stressed the value of this for medical technologies in developing economies, where frugal innovation has led to cheaper prosthetics and vaccines and benefited many more people as a result. He suggested that RRI could assist initiatives such as this, by identifying barriers to accessibility and addressing them in a direct, and coordinated fashion.

Dr. von Schomberg’s presentation was followed by an interactive discussion, which delved into some of the practical and normative specifics of RRI. One of the most lively discussion points related to the scope of the approach, with some participants suggesting that it remained unclear how the ‘innovation’ in Responsible Research Innovation could be effectively addressed under the highly decentralised agency that characterises current entrepreneurship. . Agenda setting was a key focus of Dr. von Schomberg’s presentation, and some of the participants sought clarification on how this could be translated beyond the scope publicly funded projects. Other issues were also raised, including:

  • the ability to coordinate effectively so many stakeholders for the purposes of tackling the grand challenges,
  • the great difficulty to agree on common ethical stances and,
  • the difficulties in predicting and anticipating technological developments in the near and long term.

The participants were also unclear as to how the agenda would be set without disagreement, and whether to potential drawbacks to more direct control in the setting the research agenda were properly considered. As the visit drew to a close however, the participants agreed that, even considering the time already spent, there was much more to discuss and explore, leading them to continue the discussion into the evening under the Roman sun.

Dr. Dr.phil. René von Schomberg is an agricultural scientist and philosopher. He is an author/(co-editor) of 14 books. He holds Ph.D’s from the University of Twente, the Netherlands (Science and Technology Studies) and J.W.Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany (Philosophy). He has been a European Union Fellow at George Mason University, USA in 2007 and has been with the European Commission since 1998