As a public funder of research, EPSRC has a responsibility to ensure that its activities and the research it funds are aligned with the principles of responsible innovation, creating value for society in an ethical and responsible way. To this end, EPSRC worked with stakeholders to develop a flexible framework that researchers can use to ensure the principles of responsible innovation are incorporated in their studies.
The EPSRC Framework originally started as a proposal from the research council’s own Societal Issues Panel, and was then approved by its Council – the overall governing body. It has generated a number of important outcomes for its own research communities and its partners.
The framework for responsible innovation drew on the experiences of researchers across the range of disciplines and projects funded by EPSRC. Besides researchers, stakeholders included policymakers and civil society organisations.
The framework promotes reflection, understanding and training about responsible-innovation approaches within the wider research community, encouraging broader interactions with other disciplines and spheres of expertise.
The developed approach provides a framework for ensuring RRI standards become an integral part of all research and innovation endeavours. The concepts of responsible institutions and ethically acceptable and socially desirable R&I were explicitly addressed. The RI Framework introduced the concept of “life cycle assessment” so that issues around responsible innovation were continuously assessed throughout a particular project.
As a result of the RI Framework, there have been public dialogues on synthetic biology, geo-engineering and nanotechnology in medicine, for example. According to the (former) CEO of EPSRC, what emerged from these was broad public support for research and innovation. In the case of synthetic biology, citizens were very concerned that researchers have at the forefront of their thinking the dangers that could be involved with the research they were doing. But they were not against speculative or “adventurous” research projects.
Although there is a serious gender imbalance in the research community in engineering and the physical sciences, with far more men than women, this was not the case during the dialogue exercises, with female citizens being at least as many, if not more than, their male counterparts. As a result, researchers adapted their viewpoints to take into account issues raised with them by women in the consultation groups.
One area in which the Council learned of public concerns was theragnostics – the use of nano-scale devices to diagnose conditions and to deliver appropriate medicines. Citizens felt that they did not want to take the human factor out of diagnoses and treatment, and this was taken on board by the research community.
As a result of the adoption of its RI Framework, EPSRC has ensured that its ~130 Doctoral Training Centres include aspects of responsible research and innovation in the “curriculum” that they deliver to PhD students, including public engagement.
EPSRC is engaging with Shell, one of its major industrial partners, to share experiences on responsible innovation.
Incorporating diverse perspectives at the beginning of a project, or at least as soon as possible, is an essential part of RRI standards. To effect change, government policymakers and regulators should be alerted to emerging issues and opportunities as soon as they become apparent.