Responsible Innovation: lubricant or show-stopper?

Responsible Innovation: lubricant or show-stopper?

Jef Boeke, George Church, Andrew Hessel, Nancy Kelley and colleagues have raised quite some alarm over their ambitious proposal for a multi-billion Human Genome Project – write. They demonstrate their goodwill and awareness of public sensitivities by including a paragraph on responsible innovation and the co-authorship of Todd Kuiken of the Woodrow Wilson Institute, a renowned expert on ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) of synthetic biology. The paragraph reads like a solid research agenda for ELSI and public engagement, for which the initiators intend to reserve an unspecified percentage of the research budget. After taking this hurdle, the article continues with an ambitious sketch of how their initiative may save the world and will generate benefits for anybody. The sky is the limit, and regulation will be in place just in time, after broad consultation engaging everyone: responsible innovation as lubricant.

Back to the real world, where science and technology are less popular than the authors seem to believe. Critical civil society organisations (CSOs) may well decline the invitation to join the public dialogue about responsible innovation in this project, for fear of being used as legitimator of technological developments the consequences of which are very hard to foresee. A precedent is the letter published by a group of CSOs in response to the nanotechnology framework developed by Dupont and Environmental Defence in 2007. Others may use the invitation to effectively block any dialogue, as happened in the French public debate on nanotechnology in 2010. More recently, scientists are frequently suspected of conflicts of interests, especially if they cooperate closely with life science industry. Research integrity is a big issue, sometimes justifiable, but in other cases looking more like a witch hunt. Likewise, a science friendly liberal worldview is not the most powerful determinant of political decision making in many parts of the world, not even in the United States. So early public engagement could just as easily open the door to premature show-stoppers, inhibiting risky as well as potentially beneficial applications of synthetic biology.

Should the initiators abandon their plans for responsible innovation, then? Of course not. These days, any self-respecting scientist or entrepreneur must invest time and resources in seriously considering potential risks and benefits of his or her research and technology development.  One key issue is to incorporate flexibility in the strategic research agenda, allowing for continuous changes in directions under the guidance of stakeholders, abandoning some lines while opening up more promising avenues. The other is to sensitize synthetic biologists and other stakeholders to underlying differences in worldviews, stimulating mutual learning. The SYNENERGENE project is a prime example of such a work in practice.

By Ineke Malsch, 8 June 2016, postbus [at]


I think the fear of CSOs of being used as a legitimator is legitimate, and I agree that in principle stakeholders should be involved earlier, but:

1. In reality, CSOs have to be careful in what to spend there limited resources on, which may also be reason to decline invitations to engage in ‚a dialogue';

2. In my view reciprocity is an important principle, also in RRI, and 'acting in a responsible manner' should be applied by all stakeholders. Then is it a 'responsible attitude’ not to except the invitation and use the opportunity to discuss and exchange views, concerns, normative issues? Maybe it is more attractive for CSOs to operate in line with widely shared public perceptions and campaign against new technologies than to engage in the complexity of an innovation process; A process in which you have to deal with uncertainty regarding possibilities and outcomes of the process and you may have to defend activities not in line with public perceptions?