Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) aims to foster intimate linkages between science, technology and innovation to address the so-called grand societal challenges. These include health, food security, clean energy, sustainable transport, climate change, inclusive societies, freedom and security of Europe and its citizens. RRI has a role to play in ensuring the intricate entanglements of “science and society” in the making.

RRI invites us to deliberate fundamental questions related to what kind of futures we want science, technology and innovation to bring into the world. The Norwegian experience of integrating RRI in some of the major national research funding programmes indicates the importance of changing current research and institutional practices to ensure a societally responsible weaving of the research and innovation fabric.

The challenge of addressing Grand Challenges, as explored in a 2014 report by Stefan Kuhlmann and Arie Rip for ERIAB, reviewed current approaches, structures and practices in relation to tackling these grand challenges. It argues that the grand challenges not solely resides “out there” in society for the science, technology and innovation community to “address.” This indicates that we should not simply take research and innovation as a means to address societal challenges. Instead, we should invert this approach and make research and innovation an object of inquiry in its own right.

Following this evolution of our thinking, we might consider RRI as a wake-up call to a reality where science, technology and innovation are always already embedded in society and vice versa. As such, RRI invites a new attempt to mitigate the asymmetry that Jerry Ravetz articulated as follows in 1975: “Science takes credit for penicillin, while Society takes the blame for the Bomb.”

Responsible Research and Innovation experiments

I have closely followed RRI experiments and I strongly value related discussions at the Research Council of Norway (RCN). In this context, solving the grand societal challenges implies examining the research and innovation system itself.

This approach requires developing competencies and skills and creating suitable diagnostic and prospective capacities. Because basic understandings and diagnoses frame the issues at stake in solving grand challenges, they need to be made more explicit. They also need to have been discussed as an integral part of research, innovation as well as policy-making.

Currently, developing skills and capacities regarding what is referred to as “second-order reflexivity” tops RCN’s RRI agenda. This requirement was already clearly outlined in the 2009 expert-report by the European Commission entitled Challenging Futures of Science in Society. Reflexivity requires what the report calls “further skills” as researchers, as well as policy-makers, must enhance their ability to provide meta-knowledge “about premises, conditions of validity, uncertainties, areas of ignorance, values and conditions of applicability to certain contexts” in research and innovation.

The RRI framework of the Research Council of Norway thus support the development of skills that are required to open up the research and innovation processes. And to recognise the limits of our own knowledge and competence. It also supports the involvement of stakeholders and various publics to help in dealing with the potential effects of research and innovation processes.

Governance of complexity

The new strategy of the Research Council of Norway, entitled Research for Innovation and Sustainability 2015–2020, is geared towards greater societal responsibility than before. It focuses on research and innovation activities that are likely to yield benefits for society at large in the long term. It also foster solutions that help in addressing the societal grand challenges.

The RRI framework was developed in parallel with the main strategy by the large scale technology programmes; namely the Research Programme on Biotechnology for Innovation (BIOTEK2021), the Research Programme on Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (NANO2021), the Initiative for ICT and digital innovation (IKTPLUSS) and the Programme on Responsible Innovation and Corporate Social Responsibility (SAMANSVAR).

The framework was inspired by international developments; in particular, the emerging RRI policy by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK. The RCN programmes conducted several RRI experiments while building their RRI ambitions. These stretch goals were later set down in the RRI framework. They not only formulate expectations for the research organisations receiving funding but also for the programmes themselves, as responsible societal actors.

Governance in complexity

The large scale technology programmes driving RCN’s RRI-engagement, did not happen by chance. Indeed, research, technology development and innovation entail more than uncovering truth or charting out new and improved maps. These are activities that can, potentially–and often directly–change the landscape in which we live. We are not merely “reading” nature. Increasingly, we are “rewriting” it as well, as Jack Stilgoe explains in his 2015 book Experiment Earth.

RCN’s RRI framework designates a key role to governance, as does many other framings of RRI that have emerged in recent years. At the same time, the understanding of governance changes as a result of the distribution of responsibility for governance in dynamic and heterogeneous networks. Governance in complexity seems a wiser strategy than attempt at governance of complexity.

Here, the framework points to resources that emerge from the work on Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA) in the Netherlands, including ‘responsible development’ and ‘transition management “”)’, as well as the 2015 European Commission expert report on RRI indicators for promoting and monitoring Responsible Research and Innovation.

Out of our comfort zone

Today, we are pursuing our RRI experiments in tandem with Digital Life Norway, among others. Ongoing discussions point to question whether we need a version 2.0 of the RRI framework.

This new version would include a new dimension of the RRI approach, called “transition.” It is based on bringing together multiple perspectives and multiple experimental approaches to make the RRI transition sustainable. This notion would be included to the key aspects included in version 1.0 already covering ‘anticipatory’, ‘reflexive’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘responsive’ research and innovation processes. Our collaboration with the newly formed Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) provides the background and motivation to include the dimension of “transition” towards RRI.

RCN’s experiments indicate that RRI is not respecting the traditional boundaries between research, innovation and politics. In discussions amongst researchers following Brexit, we have heard calls for more RRI activism. Some find it rather unsettling, individually–they feel this new order threatens their professional identities. From an institutional perspective, RRI entails not respecting the established divisions of labour.

To others, the RRI wake-up call rings so loud that it even disturbs our received notion of excellence in research. The 2014 Rome Declaration on Responsible Research and Innovation in Europe, gave a revised definition of what excellence in research means through the lenses of RRI: “excellence today is about more than ground-breaking discoveries, it includes openness, responsibility and the co-production of knowledge.”

This suggests a change of direction from ‘outreach’–working to convince the public about the value of research and innovation– towards ‘inreach‘–presenting expectations about learning and development to ourselves and to the peers in the research and innovation communities. Some of us are, by now, far outside of our comfort zone.

This article is brought to you courtesy of the HubIT project in which Pedal Consulting is a partner.