Responsible innovation links the future to the present

By Jack Stilgoe
Research Fortnight

The effects of science are unpredictable, unevenly spread and increasingly disruptive. We need to do more to shape technologies before they are fully formed, argues Jack Stilgoe.

“The disparity between rich and poor has been noticed... Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t.” So said CP Snow in his Rede Lecture on The Two Cultures, in 1959.

The lecture is most famous for the dichotomy it diagnosed (and so exacerbated) between the sciences and the arts. Snow felt that science could only realise its almost limitless potential by forming a better connection with the cultures around it. So optimistic was he about the power of science, he imagined that even the toughest social problems would soon succumb to a technological fix.

Five decades later and 13 years after Snow’s deadline, the gap between the global rich and poor has expanded while the productivity of science has increased exponentially. If science, as Francis Bacon described it, is about both intellectual enlightenment and the relief of man’s estate, one could be forgiven for thinking that the emphasis has been firmly on the former.

This issue has troubled science policy researchers for decades. In 1977, the economist Richard Nelson asked how a society that could send men to the moon was still unable to help poor people escape poverty and illiteracy. In the past few years, the debate has taken on a new name: responsible innovation.

It is clearly unfair to focus on the unmet promises made on science’s behalf while ignoring its vast, often unpredictable and serendipitous benefits. In wealthy countries, the products of scientific research and technological innovation are woven into our everyday lives. And even in countries where people do not see the same share of benefits, there is evidence of science-led progress in medicine and agriculture.

But if we let science and innovation take credit for these transformative advantages, we should not be afraid to ask where responsibility lies for the unrealised promises and unintended consequences of innovation. The broad aim of responsible innovation is to connect research and innovation in the present to the futures that it promises and can help bring about.

Discussions of responsibility in science often zoom in on individuals. We point to heroes such as Jonas Salk, who gave away the polio vaccine that he invented, and Joseph Rotblat, the physicist who became a campaigner for nuclear disarmament. This emphasis on individual morality gives us codes of conduct and Hippocratic oaths, but it does not help us to understand why Snow made his grand prediction, nor why the world has failed to live up to it.

We must find ways to analyse, describe and change how systems of innovation engage, not just with their intended futures but with a full range of implications. The connection between scientific discovery and innovation is not always straightforward; the so-called linear model of innovation, in which science leads to technology and then social benefits, is not so fiercely defended by scientists when things go wrong.

Innovation can be a form of what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls organised irresponsibility. Science gets the credit for the polio vaccine, whereas it is all too easy to pass the blame for the atomic bomb onto society at large.

With genetic modification, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering, society faces profound questions and dilemmas. There is a growing recognition that the questions brought to the surface by each next big thing (Who benefits? Who decides? What are the risks? Who’s in control? What if we’re wrong? What are the alternatives? Who’s responsible?) are not unique to a particular technology and will only get louder as research presents ever-more disruptive possibilities for intervention, be it in our genes, our natural environments, our economies or our private lives.

We need an antidote to the narrative of inevitability that often accompanies new technologies. The hope is that, before these technologies are fully formed, we might be able to nudge their trajectories towards responsible, desirable futures. Public dialogue, constructive technology assessment, foresight, codes of conduct and temporary moratoriums can all help to suggest new directions for innovation. But, as befits an approach that is sceptical of technological fixes, they should not be taken as panaceas.

Responsible innovation is not about slowing down innovation or rejecting ideas or technologies. It is about asking scientists and other innovators to imagine, in conversation with society, different possibilities. Maybe it is time to ask how science can alleviate the global poverty that so troubled Snow.

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Jack Stilgoe is a lecturer in the department of science and technology studies at University College London. This is an edited version of his foreword for Responsible Innovation: Managing the responsible emergence of science and innovation in society (Wiley 2013).

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