Responsible Innovation: Resolving the Social and Ethical Implications Of Research

By Shweta Iyer on February 16, 2014 2:31 PM EST

responsible innovation
Conducting scientific research responsibly may be difficult sometimes, as consideration for the people the technology affects may be forgotten. Collaborating with social scientists, however, could pave the way for responsible innovation. (Photo: Idaho National Laboratory, CC )

While we may think that the benefits of new technology far outweigh their potential side effects, sometimes it so happens that what appears as a miracle today can become a threat in the future.

More often than not, research conducted by engineers and scientists have social consequences and impacts that were previously unforeseen. But failing to consider these impacts can have disastrous effects on society. For example, consider a scientist who has created an invaluable product, which could help millions of people. He's followed all the guidelines pertaining to the materials and processes, and has come up with a superior innovation. But a few years down the line it is discovered that a by-product of the new innovation is harmful to the environment. Could this harmful consequence have been avoided if the scientist had made a simple change in his research process?

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In other cases, the science behind projects that get funding is not understood by the public at large - the safety concerns over genetically modified crops or the long-term impacts of using nuclear energy, for example. Some people might question whether it makes sense to invest money and energy into projects without knowing how society will react to them.

This brings us to the concept of "responsible innovation," a relatively new policy that was introduced when the U.S. government began funding nanotechnology. Responsible innovation considers the humanistic and even philosophical aspects of new research without having to compromise progress or scientific integrity.

The Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR), a project that Arizona State University Professor Erik Fisher leads, works with labs in different countries, is trying to find ways in which responsible innovation can be achieved. "We can't move forward laying the foundations for a new technological infrastructure that's going to change social, ethical, cultural relations, without checking with the people and providing an input for them so that they realize, there are values at stake here, and you need to weigh in," Fisher said in a press release.

While socio-technical integration is a new concept, it has huge implications as it considers the impact any research can have on the future of society. Socio-technical integration promotes responsible innovation, thereby ensuring that research funding decisions are socially equitable, while setting up projects "that have promises that are too good to be true."

The Socio-technical integration project brings social scientists trained in ethics together with natural scientists in the lab. Fisher has seen first-hand success in these collaborations. One case happened in the nano-scale engineering laboratory, where, upon discussing the research process with an engineer, the two discovered that using a different chemical catalyst could mitigate the potentially negative environmental impacts of the project, and improve worker safety.

At Arizona State University, Fisher helps doctoral students studying ethics and responsible innovation find laboratories that are interested in such collaborations. When in the lab, they typically ask natural scientists questions - "what are you doing," "Why," and "Who might care about it," for example - to understand the research process. If there are areas of concern that arise, the natural and social scientists tackle them together.

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