Research can be controversial. An unintended adverse reaction of the public to a research topic can make work in the area more challenging and result in a negative legislative response.
The best way to avoid such a reaction is to address controversial issues directly and appropriately.
Responsible research and innovation should not be confused with ethical approval. An activity can be ethically approved and supported by researchers and stakeholders, but it may not gain wider public acceptance.
To increase public acceptability and minimise future negative responses, early dialogue is important.
It is about acknowledging that science:
- can raise questions and dilemmas
- is often ambiguous in terms of purposes and motivations
- can be unpredictable in terms of impacts – beneficial or otherwise.
Responsible innovation creates spaces and processes to explore these aspects of innovation in an open, inclusive and timely way.
This is a collective responsibility, where funders, researchers, stakeholders and the public all have an important role to play. It includes, but goes beyond, considerations of risk and regulation, important though these are.
There is no prescriptive overarching checklist to embed responsible research and innovation in the research and innovation process. Different approaches might be required for different research areas.
There may be instances where detailed consideration is premature or even unwarranted. In other areas of research, a responsible innovation approach may be highly recommended, or even required.
EPSRC promotes the use of the flexible anticipate, reflect, engage and act (AREA) framework.
Engaging users in responsible innovation
When engaging in responsible innovation discussions, it is important to recognise and be open to the two-way nature of the dialogue.
It is opening up the research visions, impacts and questioning to broader deliberation, dialogue, engagement and debate in an inclusive way.
Engagement can help influence the direction and trajectory of the research and innovation process for the better.
The benefits of taking an appropriate approach to responsible research and innovation will often extend beyond the individual project and will help advance understanding of the relevant research topic as a whole.
Effectively engaging the public in a dialogue around their concerns and anxieties is the most effective way to address those anxieties and prevent public perception challenges to your research in the future.
What to consider to make sure your research is responsible
You should consider:
- if the topic you are researching is potentially controversial – external perspectives can be useful to answer this question
- is there a significant ethical or moral component
- how will you identify potentially controversial implications of your research that may arise during a project
- if there are trust or social acceptability issues for your research
- what broader interactions do you need to develop capacity for responsible innovation
- when responsible innovation engagement will be able to influence your research direction or trajectory.
Resources to request
As part of your proposal you should consider requesting resources to:
- undertake appropriate training to develop an understanding of responsible innovation
- employ additional expertise to embed responsible innovation in your project, for example collaborators from the social sciences
- facilitate dialogue and engagement such as travel or meeting costs
- network with UK and international groups who are also working in similar areas to share best practice and develop a collaborative approach.
EPSRC framework for responsible innovation – provides advice and guidance while setting out our expectations for the researchers we fund and their research organisations.
Sciencewise – provides resources and support as the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policymaking in science and technology.
RRI Tools – EU website that has aggregated resources from across 30 European countries, providing ideas and support for your own activities.
Developing a framework for responsible innovation – research policy published on ScienceDirect providing detailed information about the development of the AREA framework.