Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

René von Schomberg on Responsible Innovation and its dimension of societal impact.

This interview is done in personal capacity and based on insights such as recently published in the “International Handbook on Responsible Innovation: A Global Resource”.

In 2013, you introduced a vision for Responsible Research and Innovation. What are its key features and how does it differ from other approaches that aim to spark marketable innovation?

The main characteristic of this paradigm is that, innovations should be directed or redirected towards socially desirable objectives and thus become responsive to public values rather than to be detached from them. Innovation policy should become value-driven and deliberative in nature. This new paradigm would bring a form of anticipative governance in which public authorities and all relevant stakeholders share an institutionalised form of co-responsibility for the outcomes of research and innovation, among other, supported by new standards for innovations, codes of conduct, public-private partnerships etc and compensate for market-failures.

What implications does RRI have for our understanding of societal impact?

Currently we are not able to distinguish at policy and political levels, what a ‘good’ societal impact is or what would constitute an undesirable impact. For example one can object robotics out of fear for loss of jobs as a negative impact or advocate it as we need disruptive technologies towards positive social change. But what do we as a society actually want or prefer? How do we want to shape our innovations? In order to be able to do identify those impacts and make work out of the task the shape these technologies, we need democratic deliberative policies/procedures to qualify societal impacts and deliberative decision making processes which decide on mid and long term objectives. We can not leave it up to market-mechanisms. The sustainable development goals could so far constitute societal mid to long term objectives which satisfy the feature of a ‘good’ impact or socially desirable objective as those have been the result of long deliberation processes at the global level.

Under the umbrella term “Third Mission”, universities are increasingly expected to make a contribution to society. How could the four dimensions of RRI (anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity, responsiveness) be applied the university context (i.e. the knowledge production & dissemination, evaluation of universities)? Where do you foresee the need for institutional change?

I don’t advocate these four dimensions as such although I would advocate them as features of high quality deliberative policy or decision making process. Universities should indeed be subject of institutional change. One fundamental aspect is here the transition towards open scholarship in the broadest sense, e.g. enable knowledge sharing as early as possible in the research process, and open up to include societal knowledge producers in this process, instead of publishing as fast and as much as possible. For that, both the mechanisms for funding research and the rewards, incentive and career system in universities and public research institutes have to be radically adapted.

Where do you see the biggest challenge for RRI to become reality?

The biggest challenge is to compensate for global market driven innovations/trends and to re-establish mechanisms for protection and production of public goods. Currently we see a decline in global governance, AI for example, will probably be shaped by the results of competition among Alibaba, Google, Amazon and the likes rather than by conception of ‘good’ AI initiatives on which only scarce resources are allocated. Institutional change is not only required for universities and research institutions, but also for public policy and innovation management.