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Home > Focus > The Metis of Responsible Innovation, Prof. Philip Macnaghten

The Metis of Responsible Innovation, Prof. Philip Macnaghten

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 6 June 2016

Early in May Prof. Phil Macnaghten delivered his first lecture in a ceremony to celebrate his position as Professor of Technology and International Development at Wageningen University. Readers will be familiar with the work of Prof. Macnaghten as he has played a pivotal role in the development of the RI debate, an example of which is his position as co-author of the ESRC framework of Responsible Innovation with Jack Stilgoe and Richard Owen, a review of which can be found here [2].

Wageningen University have made video of this ceremonial lecture freely available, and in this post we would like to provide an overview to readers and urge them to view this informative and well rounded lecture. The event is designed to allow new Professors the opportunity to describe their interests, goals and body of work to other members of staff and distinguished guests, giving the audience a privileged viewpoint on the new professor's position within his or her field. Macnaghten uses the event to offer an overview of the development of arguments surrounding the concept of RI through his own experience and involvement in 3 large projects.

In his lecture entitled The Metis of Responsible Innovation, Macnaghten describes how the concept of RI moves from a retrospective standpoint of responsibility to a more forward looking prospect. He explains the implications of this change and how the four dimensions of RI as developed for (and later from) the ESRC framework were drawn, and the problems that they aim to address.

Throughout the lecture the concept of Metis is used to evoke an understanding of skill that is necessary in order to make this transition. This concept use leads to the formation of an important question: Is it possible to anticipate social problems and address them during development stage?

In order to address this question Prof. Macnaghten offers 3 case studies, through the lense of large projects that he was personally involved in.

In his description of the DEEPEN Project [3], he explains that 5 narratives related to ethical concerns surrounding innovation came out of research into public perception of the issues that should be addressed. These can be characterized through the following questions:

Be careful what you wish for, is what you want really good for you?
Is this a Pandora's box scenario?
Is this messing with nature?
Are we being kept in the dark?
Will the rich get richer?

He concludes the cases study by outlining some of the results and the effects of the research on European society.

The speaker than moves on to his geoengineering case study, namely his involvement in the SPICE project. Readers can learn more about the project through the ESRC Framework article linked above, but Macnaghten's description adds a lot of insight from a personal perspective that cannot be gained from reading publications about the experience. His lecture delivery offers great insight into the mechanisms involved in both the project and the research process itself, a concise history of the history of various attempts to control climate, and a series of thoughts on public engagement and participation.

The final case study involves global lessons from GM crops. Macnaghten argues that the GM controversy demonstrates that such an issue must be addressed from a local starting point. He states that if we cannot understand why they are not accepted how can we know how and if they can help to feed the world? This is based upon research that found that the debate surrounding regulation had been dominated by risk assessment, and as a result public debate reduced to that of safety concerns. He argues that the GM controversy debate needs to involve and consider additional perspectives, as social, cultural and institutional factors were largely responsible for the controversy but under represented throughout the discussion.

In his concluding remarks, Macnaghten asked the question of how we govern beyond risk. He argued that there seems to be a void here (beyond risk), and that RI frameworks aim to fill that gap.

An interesting video that offers a great deal of insight into the practicalities of some of the ways that the debate surrounding RI has been developed.

All at the Bassetti Foundation would like to congratulate Prof. Macnaghten on his new appointment, look forward to sharing in his future work and wish him and his family all the very best for their new life in the Netherlands.


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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] /en/focus/2013/07/developing_a_framework_for_res.html
  3. 3] https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/research/research_projects/?mode=project&id=241
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The Metis of Responsible Innovation, Prof. Philip Macnaghten
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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