Why does Responsible Innovation need public ethics?

pete_web Dr Peter Mills, Assistant Director

 

In this post, Pete Mills reflects on elaborations of the concept of Responsible Innovation in the UK and EU, and argues that responsible innovation needs an underpinning of  ‘public ethics’.

“The use of “responsible” in the expression “responsible innovation” is comparable to the use of “lazy” in the expression “a lazy chair”: strictly speaking the chair is not lazy. The word “lazy” in this expression refers to chairs that invite and accommodate people who can be said to be lazy, who feel lazy, are lazy, or behave as if they were lazy. Strictly speaking it is not the innovation itself that is responsible.”

I like this extract from the extended definition of ‘Responsible Innovation’ given in a recent report published by the EU Directorate General for Research and Innovation under its ‘Science in Society’ theme.  I like it because it shows how one can easily become entangled in distractions when challenged to elaborate what seems, at first blush, like a fairly commonsense concept.

‘Responsible innovation’ (and the related ‘responsible research and innovation’) is everywhere.  Or, at least, the idea is.  Of course, support for the idea that research and innovation should be ‘responsible’, once that idea is articulated, is a racing certainty – an overt backlash from advocates of irresponsible research and innovation is unlikely (although – pace Ulrich Beck – ‘organised’ irresponsibility’ may suit some interests).  But having posited and promulgated the concept, its advocates are now, rightly, being called upon to give more sustained account of its meaning.

Two growing bodies of work are elaborating the concepts of RI/RRI in the European Commission and in UK academia, although RI/RRI is itself acknowledged to be intrinsically global in ambition.

The EU version of RI is largely about the orientation of research towards social challenges and the need for public engagement.  Recent documents published by the European Commission embody ground clearing work by René von Schomberg.  The pervasiveness of the human rights tradition and the political constraints of European public policy, though, mean that the way this has become cashed out in bullet points (engagement, gender equality, science education, open access, ethics, governance) largely concerns processes of innovation and managing innovation towards the ‘right impacts’.  The formulation of the societal challenges are separated from RI as anterior political givens, subservient to, for example, the goals of the Europe 2020 growth strategy.

The scholarly account developed by Owen, Stilgoe, Macnaghten et al.,* among the main proponents of responsible innovation in the UK, offers more space for reflection on the underlying values, which it boils down to dimensions of ‘care’ and ‘responsiveness’.  It helpfully locates the need for these in the shortcomings of regulation (too little, too late) as a response to the intrinsic uncertainty and transformative potential of novel technologies, and the characteristics of complex, modern innovation systems that have a tendency to commit us to pathways leading to futures we can’t fully understand.  In this respect, ‘care’ is precaution grown up and ‘responsiveness’ is lock-in with the keys left in the lock.  Indeed, we can see how the responsible innovation movement (I think it deserves this characterisation) has self-consciously developed a narrative that co-opts earlier developments to its own prehistory, including initiatives in ELSI, scientific research integrity, technology assessment, etc. RI is, in fact, a portmanteau concept, something that makes it difficult – but also unnecessary and even unhelpful – to constrain by an agreed definition.

As a movement with a practical mission, RI has to come up with a normative programme that responds to the perceived procedural failure of markets and the epistemic failure of governments to manage innovation effectively for social good.  In other words, to leaven the historically varying blend of dirigisme and laissez-faire where it fails, by many accounts, to deliver expected benefits.  The leaven in this case is deliberation, and a key part of the mission concerns the place given to deliberation, the nature of the deliberation and its role in conditioning technological pathways.

Perhaps the most important question (because the potentially most conditioning) is how this deliberation is framed, in terms of how the meanings assigned within deliberative contexts are orientated towards underlying values, how different expectations and imagined futures are associated with them.  This is where public ethics comes in.

The need for public ethics arises because of the limitations of pre-existing moral knowledge when applied to novel and potentially transformative technologies (and the problem of ‘moral luck’), the insufficiency of other (expertise-based or market-based) mechanisms as mediating the plural social values, and the socially transformative potential of innovation that requires common reflection on the relative desirability of shared possible futures.

Rather than accepting the impossibility of responsibility for unpredictable outcomes public ethics offers an approach to affirming that responsibility.  In our Emerging Biotechnologies report we suggested that this could be achieved through the cultivation of a number institutional and procedural virtues.  These are not the Aristotelian-Thomist virtues of the natural law tradition.  Rather they are modes of engaging in shaping innovation as a collective enterprise, not one in which pre-existing value relations are discovered but one by which they are produced in situ.  (It is not coincidental that the UK RI movement is more open in acknowledging that as well as an ethics, it also embodies a politics.)

The debate about the meaning of RI/RRI will continue and is continuing.  As a contribution we will be exploring Public ethics and emerging biotechnology research in a panel session under that title at the 2013 Science in Public conference, to be held at the University of Nottingham on 22-23 July.  If you’re quick you could still join the panel by submitting a brief abstract by April 15, or just come along and be part of the debate.

*Owen R, Stilgoe J, Macnaughten P, Gorman M, Fisher E and Guston D (forthcoming) ‘A framework for Responsible Innovation’ in Owen R and Bessant J (eds) Responsible Innovation (John Wiley & Sons Ltd).

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