Achim Rosemann and Susan Molyneux-Hodgson
This is the second part of our commentary in which we look at the ways in which ideas of responsible research and innovation (RRI) are discussed in recent UK discourse on industrial biotechnology (IB) innovation, in particular the UK’s National IB Strategy to 2030. We reveal a startling trend: plans to integrate responsible innovation and public engagement were prominently discussed in IB policy reports in the early and mid 2010s, but virtually disappear in the recently launched National IB Strategy. Whilst the National Strategy is dedicated to public outreach activities that contribute to make IB more transparent, it fails to promote a more open and inclusive innovation process that allows for input from societal stakeholders and the wider public. This is a missed opportunity. Failure to engage with the societal dimensions of IB innovation undermines public trust and can lead to innovation failure and reputational risks for the sector as a whole.
RRI has been reduced to public outreach
A key concern of the UK’s National IB Strategy to 2030 is to shape public awareness of industrial biotechnology, in ways that alleviate concerns and help fostering positive social attitudes. To achieve these aims, the document proposes a comprehensive communication strategy ‘for targeting the masses’. This involves techniques such as ‘public advertisements’, working with ‘celebrity IB champions’, ‘developing brand and communication channels’, and other strategies to influence public opinion.
A central problem with this approach is that it reduces communication to a one-way feed that is based on the long-defunct ‘deficit model’: the view that a scientifically illiterate public needs to be informed, taught and its attitudes and perceptions need to be changed. Considering the fierce opposition to certain biotech innovations by NGOs and citizen groups a commitment to public outreach and public education is understandable, but the fact that the National Strategy reduces communication to a uni-directional endeavour is surprising. Not only is the deficit model of understanding that the report employs based on simplistic assumptions of publics and disregards the value of integrating ideas, preferences, needs and concerns from citizens and consumers, but it also ignores the wider political mandate to shape science, together with, and not only for society. This reduction of RRI to ‘communications’ and ‘public outreach’ activity is problematic. The IBLF and other governance bodies should rethink their current approach in order to foster a climate of broad engagement and, critically, dialogue.
Promises of “sustainable futures” do not make RRI redundant
As with other similar strategy documents, the National IB Strategy invests ample space to discuss the potential future benefits of IB innovation, especially its potential to make production, consumption and waste management more sustainable. The sector’s potential to contribute to a “greener” future does not, however, diminish the importance of RRI. The creation of new manufacturing processes and products that are “more sustainable” does not mean that they are inherently safe and in the wider public interest. Nor does it mean they cannot have any unintended adverse effects, including long-term consequences for human societies and the environment.
A concern with potentially problematic aspects of IB is absent in the National Strategy. The document’s one-sided focus on (anticipated) future benefits of IB not only ignores a thorough evaluation of potential risks and unintended adverse effects, but also disregards a comprehensive reflection on how benefits will be distributed across societies and how they will interact with existing economic, agricultural and environmental systems and the lives and behaviour of citizens.
If we consider UK policy and practice in synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology developments in the last 10 – 15 years, we can see serious attempts to include societal perspectives in the numerous technical programmes. Considering this, it is surprising that many of the recommendations laid out in earlier IB policy documents have disappeared in the more recent reports. The 2018 National IB Strategy to 2030 and other policy documents need a consistent commitment to RRI that is backed up by plans to incorporate RRI ideas into actual research, innovation and commercialization practices. More recent publications, such as the 2019 Biotech Manifesto of the BIA and the 2019 report Industrial Biotechnology for Improving the Production of Higher Value Chemicals by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC), also do not refer to RRI or other participatory approaches that involve society in innovation processes. A 2019-2020 funding round by the BBSRC that centres on IB for high value chemicals, likewise provides no room for social research or reflection on how social values should inform the research agenda.
This is a missed opportunity. RRI frameworks encourage broad, early-stage public and stakeholder engagement and continuous collaboration between societal actors during the whole of the research and innovation process. This allows for the possibility to increase trust in IB, and to make innovation practices in this sector more transparent and accountable. A more open and inclusive innovation process that allows input from societal stakeholders and the wider public also brings corporate decisions closer to society and helps to integrate new perspectives into research and business practices, which ultimately may help to make IB more profitable and socially responsible. Commissioning a report that supports that approach, then placing it on a proverbial shelf, to be ignored in later reports, hardly seems productive. A key challenge for IB is to address public concern and maintain a license to operate from society. A more consistent engagement with RRI, not just public outreach and top-down communication, is a potential way of securing this license.
This work has benefitted from research support provided by Innovate UK (103564).
Achim Rosemann is a Research Fellow at the School of Engineering and Sustainable Development of De Montfort University, Leicester and an Associate at the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Exeter. Susan Molyneux-Hodgson is a Professor in the Sociology of Science at the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology of the University of Exeter.
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