All activities under the Digital Life initiative are underpinned by the principle and practice of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), because we recognize the necessity of being mindful of societal context for biotechnological research and to develop anticipatory competence regarding its impacts. This is why we constantly work to answer the question: What kind of future do we collectively want science, technology and innovation to bring into the world?

The white paper “Digital Life – Convergence for Innovation” (2014), which outlines the initiative of the Norwegian Research Council (NRC) that lead to the launch of DLN, introduces the critical role of RRI in the following manner (p. 11-12):

All activities under the Digital Life initiative must be underpinned by the principle and practice
of RRI. It is critical that the biotechnology community is mindful of its societal context and
develops anticipatory competence regarding its impacts.
What kind of future do we collectively want science, technology and innovation to bring into the
world? RRI is a new approach to governance that challenges us all to think about our responsibilities
for the future, as scientists, funders, innovators and citizens, and to act upon these.

The workgroup for RRI at the Centre for Digital Life Norway (DLN) shall contribute to the embedding and integration of RRI in the research projects at DLN. This means that the workgroup will provide guidance and training in the principles of RRI, alongside facilitating the research projects’ public engagement efforts.

The role of RRI in DLN is to attend to questions like: What exactly does the framework from RCN imply for biotechnological research and innovation in Norway? For the concrete research projects? What social challenges do biotechnological research need to address? What kind of society does Norwegian biotechnology want to contribute to build? How will (or, does) the Norwegian context invite engagement and participation? These are just some of the questions that will be concretised through the research projects in DLN.

The notion of RRI has been criticised as being both vague and underdefined, which is both restricting and liberating. The latter because it allows for a contextualised interpretation and implementation of RRI, and the former because it will be challenging to operationalise RRI without access to a checklist or well-defined requirements.

The workgroup for RRI at DLN contributes support for the research projects to relate RRI to their problem definitions, research methods and work routines. This is done through organising meetings, workshops and mini-courses where RRI is introduced and examined, both in a conceptual manner and in a more practical manner. The workgroup is also committed to setting up meeting places so that researchers from the life sciences can encounter and initiate collaborations with researchers that work with RRI-aspects of new and emerging technologies. Furthermore, the workgroup participates actively in the educational program of DLNs PhD-school. In sum, the workgroup for RRI has as its goal to set up an infrastructure that lowers the threshold for integrating solid and robust RRI-components in the research projects of DLN.
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More on RRI

The role allocated to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) at the Centre for Digital Life Norway (DLN) is unique in Norway, but internationally there are, to a certain degree, precursors in research programmes such as European Commission’s (EC) 7 th Framework Programme and Horizon 2020, the British “Framework for Responsible Innovation” and the Dutch “Maatschappelijk verantwoord innoveren” (Eng.: Responsible Innovation), and even though the concept of RRI is fairly recent it builds upon already established practices of emphasizing and assessing possible ethical and social consequences in the governance of science and new and emerging technologies. In particular, research fields such as Philosophy of Technology, Ethics of Technology, Science and Technology Studies, and Bio- and Medical Ethics have pioneered the idea that political and legal governance should be accompanied by stakeholders and experts in Ethics and Social Science in the effort to map and anticipate new technologies’ social consequences.

Scholars from the Humanities and Social Sciences, who to a varying degree has been integrated in natural science settings, have most commonly studied these consequences. RRI might be said to emphasise integration and proactive measures toward foreseen and unforeseen consequences of research and innovation. This implies that defined social challenges should act as a motivation and driver of biotechnological research – what is researched, and how it is researched. A consequences of this shift, is that scientists acquire a greater responsibility, although it remains an option for many research projects to enrol researchers from the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Inspired by Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten (2012), the Norwegian Research Council (RCN) recently published the paper Framework for Responsible Innovation, which outlines four dimensions of RRI that scientists should relate to in order for their research and innovation to be deemed socially responsible. The dimension of a nticipation conveys that research and innovation should actively map possible negative consequences of innovation and develop socially robust strategies to avoid or handle these. The dimension of inclusive implies that researchers doing innovation should invite stakeholders (concrete users, user groups etc.) to provide views and opinions on the research trajectory. Through the dimension of reflexivity, scientists should evaluate their own moral, political and social assumptions in order to acknowledge the (social) responsibility that lies in formulating and designing research questions, problem solving, problem solutions. The dimension of responsiveness demands that scientists exhibit a willingness to change research and innovation trajectories if the feedback from stakeholders or the general social development show that the research and innovation is contrary to social needs or is ethically unacceptable. The underlying question all researchers and innovators should ask themselves is: what kind of a future do we want to create through research and innovation?

For its major research programmes BIOTEK2021, NANO2021 and IKTPLUSS RCN expects that the research and innovation is planned and executed with a keen eye on these dimensions. Furthermore, the framework points to three challenges that RRI throw up for the research being done within these programmes: RRI requires new forms of knowledge and skills – for scientists, innovators, and for stakeholders, and on an institutional level, research and innovation must be governed in different manners in order to accommodate those new forms of knowledge and skills; and, finally, RRI requires research and innovation to be process oriented, rather than product oriented, in order to create space for the active involvement and engagement of stakeholders. These challenges (which are extracted from an EC-report from an expert group headed by Roger Strand) clearly shows that RRI cannot to be done on the side of or in addition to the research, but is something that requires an active reconfiguring of the entire research and innovation trajectory.

The framework where researchers are called upon to be “anticipatory, inclusive, reflexive, and responsive” has become quite ubiquitous. Another, equally widespread approach to operationalising RRI can be found in a short paper (2014) from the Horizon 2020-programme “Science With and For Society”, where RRI is associated with six keys to how research and innovation can – and should – influence and be influenced by society. This typology partly absorbs aspects of what we have already seen, but specifies to a larger degree what societal issues the RRI-components of research projects should address. The first key, Public Engagement, stresses that research and innovation should be an inclusive and deliberative process. This in order to safeguard that research and innovation is socially relevant and required. The second key is Gender Equality: any gender imbalance needs to be addressed and tackled head on. A third key is Education, which is not merely about educating researchers, but that also the curiosity and creativity of children and adolescents must be stimulated. Furthermore, it is seen as important that research is not only responsible, but that it is available as well: Open Access is assumed to ensure broader and better research and innovation. Ethics is also a key here, and includes both traditional research ethics, but also that research and innovation must respect fundamental rights and social values (handling conflicting values, for instance between ‘safety’ and ‘surveillance’ as a consequence of innovation of ICTs, are a central RRI-task). Rather than being a hindrance to research, ethics is thought to advance research quality, both in terms of the process and of the products. Finally, there is Governance, which can be understood in two ways: as a meta-key it is a reminder to design a research project in such a way that the other keys are taken into consideration, and as a call to policymakers to form research policies in a way that prevents harmful or unethical research. Taken together, both these understandings of governance corroborate the idea that research and innovation must be interactive and socially oriented.

The report written by the expert group led by Strand examines indicators for promoting and monitoring the six mentioned keys, but introduces also two additional keys. Sustainability highlights the important argument that measures for innovation and economic growth should not be separated from measures toward global sustainability, and should preferably work to improve it. This is a reminder that the economic sustainability often discussed in relation to innovation must be supplemented and not be contrary to ecological sustainability. Moreover, the report points to the key of social justice/inclusion, which stresses that RRI is not merely about shaping what research is being done in a society, or how it is done, but also involves just distribution of the products of innovation, in the sense that they should be commonly available, both in the material sense and in the economic sense.

Why RRI is important

“Science takes credit for penicillin, while Society takes the blame for the bomb” (Jerry Ravetz 1975). Is that really the case? Should it be the case? Are there even any real justification for talking about 'science' on the one hand and 'society' on the other? RRI indicates that the contract that regulates the relationship between science and society needs to be re-written. Maybe the contract has never mirrored this relationship anyway.

As a call upon science to be directed towards social concerns, RRI has not appeared out of nowhere. The background is an acknowledgement that we cannot maintain the image of a sharp distinction between science and society. And relatedly, that the linear division of labour between basic science → applied science → innovation do not really reflect the complex interdependence in developing knowledge and products. Science is an agent of social change; choices made in science, including choices concerning use and development of instruments in basic science, are choices about the kind of society that we will get. This confers a social responsibility upon science. RRI does not create this responsibility for science, but it discloses it. Through the four dimensions of RRI, the research being done in DLN has access to tools to make these choices better and more robust.

Why are the choices becoming better? RRI can play a part in making “the world” seen through the eyes of science is corresponds to “the world” that society sees. Not just the world as it is today, but also the world as it may be tomorrow. And not least, how we – both science and society – wants the world to become. RRI might also contribute to more robust choices: the dimensions are tools that can help create a match between society’s huge spending on science and what society gets out of science. Remark, this is not an unidirectional demand that science should be “useful”, it is also a guarantee that what society funds – and researchers invest time and entire career in – results in knowledge and products that society actually starts using. Moreover, RRI is about two-way communication: science is not merely accepting outside influences; through RRI, science can reach out in order to create understanding and acknowledgement of the importance (and usefulness) of the research being done. As an agent of social change, science participates in setting the societal agenda and thereby influence what it is society wants. One of the foremost aims of DLN is that biotechnological research shall result in increased creation of value. For this to happen, it is indispensable that the research being done at the Centre is something that society “wants”, needs, and is prepared to use.


Join the centre

Research and innovation projects funded by directed calls in the Norwegian Research Council’s program Biotechnology for Innovation (BIOTEK2021) become a part of the centre. In addition, other relevant projects are welcome to apply to join the centre.

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