The first issue of Volume 8 of the Journal of Responsible Innovation was released in May of 2021, an important milestone for the Journal as it was the first to be open access from its day of publication. In this post we offer an overview of this groundbreaking issue.
The volume opens with Erik Fisher’s editorial piece Responsible innovation in scientific practice: prospects, tensions and the long game. The Editor in Chief describes how the five research articles that appear in this issue ‘all ground their inquiries within one or more worlds of scientific practice, albeit across differing research, communication and deliberative settings’, visiting ‘an assortment of scientific fields, governance themes and scholarly objects of attention ranging from imaginaries, identities and materialities to futures, ethics and game’. He then outlines the approaches taken in the issue’s two book reviews (one of which is written by Foundation collaborator Jonathan Hankins).
The first research article is That would break the containment’: the coproduction of responsibility and safety-by-design in xenobiology, from Alberto Aparicio.
Based on fieldwork experience, Aparicio offers an account of the co-production of responsibility and safety-by design (or biocontainment) in xenobiology and synthetic biology, looking into the practices and framings of xenobiologists working toward the goal of ‘separating’ xenobiological systems from nature. The author analyzes the forms of reasoning about technology development and responsibility embedded in the biocontainment goal and reflects on their implications for governance and responsible research and innovation.
Aparicio draws attention to ‘considerations that restrict the range of questions besides safety that can be asked regarding the pathways sought in the research agendas of xenobiology’, demonstrating how safety (through biocontainment) is thought to lead to public trust and acceptance of new technologies (describing biocontainment as a technology of compliance) before showing that decisions about its use are not only a matter of design principles, but are contingent to the range of actors and institutions that participate in the processes of shaping innovation.
The paper contains lots of interesting quotes from discussions carried out during the fieldwork through which the author narrates the argument, offering ethnographic insight and plenty of food for thought regarding broader scientific practices.
In Exploring the readiness of publicly funded researchers to practice responsible research and innovation in digital agriculture, Áine Regan explores the readiness of publicly funded researchers in Ireland to engage in RRI activities in digital agriculture (as the title suggests).
Based on a series of in-depth one-to-one interviews, the author explains how this research “explores current practices and attitudes in the Irish scientific community towards dealing with the social, ethical and moral risks that could emerge with the rise of digital technologies in agriculture. It reflects on how those practices and attitudes align to RRI principles. In doing this, it aims to provide insights on (1) the extent to which researchers are likely to be motivated and positively inclined towards RRI activities; and (2) identify what existing practices could be leveraged, and what changes might be needed, to better align to an RRI framework in publicly funded digital agriculture research in Ireland”.
After a methodology section Regan presents her findings from three thematic perspectives: Cultural impacts: addressing unintended consequences of technology; Farm-level impacts: ensuring user-friendly technologies; and Perceived roles and responsibilities of scientists.
In the discussion that follows, the author explains that attitudes and practices reflected by participants in the current study show some alignment with the dimensions of the RRI framework (concluding that the lever which would most likely be grasped and welcomed by the participants was that of ‘inclusion’) although she also finds a number of challenges.
In a short conclusion Regan finds that there is evidence to tentatively suggest that the attitudes and current practices expressed signify a scientific community that is welcoming of the values underlying the mechanisms and dimensions proposed by the RRI framework although both individual worries and organizational barriers remain for scientists to meaningfully practice it.
The issue continues with Propping up interdisciplinarity: responsibility in university flagship research from Mads Dahl Gjefsen and Knut Jørgen Vie who ‘draw on recent literature on affordances to explore how a certain ‘prop’ influences outcomes of research communication in the NTNU Cyborg initiative, which integrates biological neural cultures with electronic circuitry and robotics to build a cybernetic organism’.
In answering their research question of ‘how does the cyborg afford particular outcomes of research communication, and how do its affordances manifest for different members of the interdisciplinary team?’, the authors guide the reader through a discussion about the use of a cyborg construction that should really be seen as a figurehead for a multi-disciplinary project, while not really being central to the actural research carried out by the scientists themselves.
Discussion includes the role that the cyborg fills and opportunities and problems that its centrality and interest in the press causes, the effect of the language used when talking about the research (not only on the public but also on the researchers themselves) and the development of the cyborg’s character (face and actions).
This is a real-life discussion of research practices from a broad perspective, really interesting and entertaining while at the same time extremely thought provoking. The use of the concept of ‘affordance’ that runs through the article very much reflects Hankins’ argument in his latest book ‘Responsible Innovation, a Narrative Approach’, in which he uses the concept for the workspace and practices rather than the prop used in this case.
The issue continues with Vision as make-believe: how narratives and models represent sociotechnical futures in which Maximilian Roßmann discusses the negotiation of visions as make-believe to give the considered feasibility of future narratives a more significant account in explaining innovation dynamics.
The author narrates his experience of facilitating a scenario workshop on microalgae nutrition to demonstrate how stakeholders use uncertain props and imaginaries to negotiate the ambiguous boundaries for the assessment of the unproven technology. He argues that the non-fixity of both authorized sources and promissory narratives explains the uncertainty of innovation dynamics.
The article places social imagination as between the material and social realm, suggesting an approach to research uncertain futures that is not only based on the study of socio-cultural frames, discourse, and imaginaries, but also on the material situation. The examples are entertaining and informative, with visions of make believe, the role of props (very much related to the Mads Dahl Gjefsen and Knut Jørgen Vie article described above) and potential limitations all discussed, before the workshop is described in detail.
The author offers a host of thought-provoking quotes and thoughts on how visions evolve before a detailed discussion and short conclusion.
The final research article in this issue is The Moral-IT Deck: a tool for ethics by design by Lachlan D. Urquhart and Peter J. Craigon.
This paper presents a new ethics by design tool: The Moral-IT Deck and its use with an Impact Asessment Board. The deck is a set of physical cards that prompt reflection on normative aspects of technology development, helping technologists to reflect on how to address emerging ethical risks and implement appropriate safeguards, while the board used provides a streamlined process for a team to collaboratively discuss and map out emerging risks, likelihood of occurrence, appropriate safeguards and challenges of addressing these.
After an introduction and description of the world of cards in design research (in itself really interesting) and the design and use of the assessment board, the authors narrate the research process, offering an almost ethnographic description of the card system in use.
They offer 3 key observations: (1) the cards levelled the playing field between participants in terms of ethical knowledge and engagement with discussions (2) that the cards provide insights into how participants view ethics (3) How the starting point for ethical discussions is significant and how the cards impact this.
After a discussion around the potential impact of the cards on technology design, the authors offer some conclusions, including the following: ‘the cards embed thinking about ethical issues in design, as opposed to moving this to external, outside assessment from ethicists or social scientists. They require technologists to reflect on and take responsibility for their design choices. Furthermore, the board enabled structured, rich reflection on the issues and proved a valuable tool for making the subject matter more accessible to technologists to plan routes forward’.
The issue closes with two book reviews.
In the first, Social Science for What? Battles over Public Funding for the ‘Other Sciences’ at the National Science Foundation by Mark Solovey, is reviewed by Zachary Pirtle. The reviewer describes the difficulties faced by the social sciences in gaining funding from the National Science Foundation (USA) and some underlying reasons and strategies, before arguing that RRI could learn some lessons from the analysis offered in the book.
The second book review is Responsibility beyond growth. A case for responsible stagnation, by Stevienna de Saille, Fabien Medvecky, Michiel van Oudheusden, Kevin Albertson, Effie Amanatidou, Timothy Birabi and Mario Pansera, and is reviewed by our own Jonathan Hankins. Readers can learn more about the book and review from this post on the Foundation website.
Once again the Journal of Responsible Innovation offers a broad range of high quality articles and reviews, with the added twist that all is available open access. All at the Bassetti Foundation offer our congratulations to Erik Fisher and the editorial team and all of the published authors, and recommend the issue to our readers.