If we don’t find ways to shape science and innovation in tune with widely shared social values, future changes will commonly be driven by the power of incumbent interests and the delegation of ‘the good’ to market forces. In his inaugural lecture as Personal Professor in Technology and International Development at Wageningen University on 12 May, prof. Philip Macnaghten explains how to innovate responsibly.
Science and technology have long been considered of as inevitably beneficial to society, as part of the Enlightenment narrative of science that imagines technology to drive inexorably forward and to bring social benefits. But as the power of science and technology to produce both benefit and harm has become clearer – ranging from the agonising of physicists over their responsibilities towards the atomic bomb to the potential for technological innovation to generate unforeseen and potentially irreversible consequences – responsibility in science needs to become broadened to embrace its collective and external impacts on society.
Take for example agricultural biotechnological innovation, including the genetic modification of crops and the new CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique. This needs responsible governance as it offers the potential to transform life. “If we want this technique to become embedded in society, we have to anticipate its future effects, both on nature and on society,” says prof. Macnaghten. Genetic modification may provide an innovative solution to the big question as to how to feed a growing population. “But unless we understand why GM crops have not been universally accepted as a public good, we will fail to understand the conditions under which GM crops can help to feed the world,” says prof. MacNaghten.
To address this issue and similar issues in related subjects like nanotechnology and geoengineering, prof. Macnaghten has led the development of a framework of responsible innovation. He has wide experience in this field. Macnaghten led the European DEEPEN project (Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies), co-led a project aimed at developing a framework for responsible innovation for the UK research councils and coordinated a comparative project aimed at understanding the factors that shape the acceptance, use and resistance to GM crops in Brazil, Mexico and India. From this typology a framework of responsible innovation was developed.
In his inaugural lecture ‘The metis of responsible innovation: Helping society to get better at the conversation between today and tomorrow’ prof. Macnaghten explains the practice of doing ‘responsible innovation’. He defines this as taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present. “We need forces of cunning to invert taken for granted assumptions and to counterbalance the forces of technological determinism and the market,” says Macnaghten.
The framework is premised on the kinds of concerns that people voice when thinking about new science and technology and the kinds of questions they would like scientists to ask of themselves. “Responsible innovation entails that we develop capacities to be anticipatory, inclusive, reflexive and responsive,” prof. Macnaghten says. “We thus need to develop a wide array of practical skills and knowledge to respond to a constantly changing environment.”
“If we want to help society to get better at the conversation between today and tomorrow ”, prof. Macnaghten concludes, “we must work at an upstream stage in the research and innovation process, to co-create responsible futures with and for society. Responsible innovation offers a useful path forward.”
Video message of prof. Macnaghten:
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Prof. Macnaghten calls for responsible innovation: ‘We must work on ways to embed innovation in society at an upstream stage’