Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is concerned with the nature and trajectory of research and innovation: what it can do for society and who gets to decide. According to Research Councils UK, it is “the process that helps researchers understand the benefits and risks of emerging technologies early on in the innovation process. It includes public engagement, risk management, life cycle analysis, ethical approval and regulation”.
RRI has been embedded by research funding institutions such as the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme and in major funding calls from other organisations. The EPSRC has RRI as a key strategic element of its funding programme, highlighting four important dimensions of RRI, namely: anticipate, reflect, engage, act (AREA).
Describing and analysing the impacts, intended or otherwise, (e.g. economic, social, environmental) that might arise. This does not seek to predict but rather to support an exploration of possible impacts and implications that may otherwise remain uncovered and little discussed.
Reflecting on the purposes of, motivations for and potential implications of the research, and the associated uncertainties, areas of ignorance, assumptions, framings, questions, dilemmas and social transformations these may bring.
Opening up such visions, impacts and questioning to broader deliberation, dialogue, engagement and debate in an inclusive way.
Using these processes to influence the direction and trajectory of the research and innovation process itself. The application of RRI also applies to the potential commercialisation of products and innovations based on synthetic biology, as stressed by the Technology Strategy Board. The focus here is not only on identifying and anticipating potential risks and impacts but also having procedures in place to manage them.
RRI has been a key feature of the synthetic biology research and innovation process for many years. In 2008 Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin, then working at the University of Nottingham, wrote a report for the BBSRC entitled Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical Challenges. In 2012 Research Councils UK published a Roadmap for Synthetic Biology.
The SBRC is committed to implementing Responsible Research and Innovation within its research programme. The RRI strand of the SBRC’s research programme is led by Professor Brigitte Nerlich, a social scientist who directs both the Making Science Public Programme and the Institute for Science and Society (School of Sociology and Social Policy). Together with Dr Carmen McLeod, a social anthropologist and Research Fellow appointed to this strand, Nerlich engages both with scientists and members of the public around RRI and also critically studies how RRI works in theory and practice.
Outreach and Responsible Research and Innovation Group (ORRIG) members:
The University of Nottingham is currently setting up an RRI information hub for work in this field across the University and beyond, based on research carried out by members of the Leverhulme funded research programme ‘Making Science Public’ and the University of Nottingham-funded project, ‘Responsible research and innovation: challenges and opportunities for governance’. PIs Dr Warren Pearce (Sociology and Social Policy), Dr Sarah Hartley (Biosciences) and Dr Alasdair Taylor (Chemistry) have written a report entitled Responsible Research and Innovation.
Blog posts on the topic of synthetic biology and RRI can be found at the Making Science Public blog under the categories:
Synthetic Biology and RRI
Blog Booklet by Professor Brigitte Nerlich