Three Policy Narratives for RRI

University of Bergen

The SUPER MoRRI project has taken on the task of developing a framework for monitoring the evolution and impact of RRI – Responsible Research and Innovation. In the literature there is no shortage of suggestions for RRI indicators, assessment practices, and monitoring schemes, so the idea of SUPER MoRRI should be to improve on the state of affairs, to develop a framework of high quality.

Those of us who were impressed with Silvio Funtowicz’ and Jerome Ravetz’ writings on post-normal science tend to think of quality as fitness for purpose. In order to assess the quality of something, we should know what it is intended to do and achieve. However, there is no consensus on the purpose nor even the content of RRI. In this regard, I have found it useful to distinguish between three policy narratives for RRI. In reality, they may be partly overlapping but for the sake of clarity I will portray them below in a slightly caricatured way and exaggerate their differences. So, let us set out to ask: If RRI is the solution, what is the problem?

The first policy narrative goes as follows: Modern science and technology (or research and innovation, if you wish) is a two-edged sword that provides us with goods and benefits, but also with Hiroshima, Silent Spring, Chernobyl, climate change, designer babies, enhanced soldiers, CRISPR, killer drones, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and so on. By sheer luck we have survived almost a century in a civilization that knows that E=mc2. Every year science and technology deliver more opportunities to improve human lives but also more ways to destroy and eradicate us and our fellow beings on this planet. Even worse, science and technology is a run-away train. There is nobody in charge, nobody in control and the speed is increasing. Market mechanisms, ethics committees and risk management procedures are too weak and lag behind. The policy problem is accordingly: “How do we regain control over the runaway train of science and technology before it totally destroys our world?” Some hope that RRI is a solution that can provide railway switches, redirections and possibly handbrakes. In this vision, RRI will enable society to speak back to science and help shape research agendas and ultimately research trajectories so that they will lead to outputs and outcomes that are beneficial to people and planet.

The second policy narrative is quite opposite. It sees science and technology as the locomotive force of a knowledge economy that is on tracks, going in the right direction and being (our only?) promise of job creation and economic growth. The problem, as seen from this perspective, is not that the train is going too fast and out of control; rather, it is being slowed down by the insufficient participation of citizens and civil society. Distrustful and ungrateful citizens are (sometimes) protesting in the middle of railroad and more often just not being supportive and helpful. From this perspective, RRI is a solution to the questions: “How do we educate, reassure and calm down the ungrateful public and make them trust us, trust science again?”

Food for thought: Perhaps the first narrative – RRI as an attempt to regain control over the S&T run-away train – calls for a version of RRI that is closer to that of authors such as René von Schomberg, Richard Owen and Jack Stilgoe, who focus on the anticipation, precaution and reflexivity. Perhaps the so-called RRI “keys” of the European Commission (gender equality, science education, et cetera) are better fit for the purpose of providing (more or less perfunctory) accountability and legitimacy to calm down the citizens and argue that everything is in order. Perhaps. Still, I would think it is fully possible to employ the “key” approach for the more radical purpose, and vice versa.

Finally, there is a policy narrative that leaves the simplistic train metaphor altogether and rather sees the world of science, technology and society as a set of entangled networks that are in increasingly in need of mutual collaboration and communication. The decades after WWII were characterized by a period of increasing specialization of research disciplines and fields of expertise. By the end of the 20th century, the need to break down silos and engage in new forms of interaction within academia as well as between science and society was ever more felt, not the least because of new global environmental and social problems – the so-called grand challenges. The policy problem is then “How do we improve collaboration across silos and promote thinking outside of the box?” and RRI is seen as one of several solutions. This way of thinking about the purpose of RRI is quite compatible with the anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion-type as well as, perhaps, the “keys” of public engagement and governance, especially if they are seen as ways to promote interaction in networks rather than objective measures for which there may be specific targets.

When we do research on RRI, we would like ourselves to be responsible. On one hand, SUPER MoRRI has to deal with this plurality of desires for RRI as a matter of fact. On the other, we are also human agents with a consciousness and our own sense of right and wrong. Personally, for 30 years, I have felt quite at home in the narrative of science and technology as a run-away train. I have colleagues and friends, however, who are offended by it and who seem to place almost religious belief in science as the source of progress and salvation. Still, we need to work together, and the third narrative promises a somewhat more disengaged and analytically refined point of departure for collaboration.

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