Achim Rosemann and Susan Molyneux-Hodgson
A national vision for industrial biotechnology
London, 6 June 2018. Leaders and luminaries from the UK biotech industry, academia and policy community gather at an event in Parliament to launch the UK’s National Strategy for the industrial biotechnology sector. Organized by the UK Bioindustry Association (BIA) and hosted by Daniel Zeichner, the MP for Cambridge, the event introduced a report that set out an ambitious vision and roadmap for the UK industrial biotechnology sector from 2018-2030. The report, Growing the UK Industrial Biotechnology Base: A National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030, was published by the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum (IBLF), an industry-led initiative to progress an industrial biotech economy in the UK.
The report sets two central objectives: First, to develop a national strategy that establishes the UK as a world leader in industrial biotechnology, and second, to enable the sector to become a mainstream part of UK industry. In order to achieve these objectives, the document advances a programme that involves a range of strategic targets that include the fostering of a supportive regulatory environment, the creation of a long-term policy landscape to support industrial biotechnology innovation, improved access to funding and finance, the promotion of trade and commercialisation, unified communication and public outreach, and others.
What role for responsible innovation?
In this two-part commentary, we look at the ways in which the UK’s sector engages with ideas of responsible research and innovation (RRI). We ask: How does the national strategy present the wider implications of industrial biotechnology innovation, including issues arising from uncertainties and unintended consequences? And how does the report engage with ideas of RRI and related practices of public engagement, stakeholder involvement and anticipation of unpredictable futures?
RRI has evolved into an influential policy framework in recent years that has been promoted by funding bodies in the UK and the European Union. The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), for example, introduced the AREA Framework that requires grant recipients to (1) anticipate––on the economic, social, environmental impacts of new innovations short and long-term, (2) reflect––on the purposes, motivations and potential implications of the research, and associated uncertainties, areas of ignorance, dilemmas and social transformations that new innovations may bring, (3) engage––by initiating broader deliberation, dialogue, engagement and debate with a wide variety of social groups and stakeholders in society, and (4) to act––by using the above steps and insights to align the process and outcomes of innovation with the values and needs of society and to make innovation processes more responsible in social, environmental but also economic and political respects. The European Research Council, on the other hand, has promoted the notion of ‘science with and for society’, which reflects a heightened policy interest in engaging society and to build effective collaboration between science and society. What these approaches share is a commitment to the realization of more inclusive and sustainable forms of science and technology innovation, which take into account societal expectations and reflect on long-term effects for societies and the environment.
RRI in the UK biotech industry: beware of mixed messages
A journey back in time. January 2013. A non-governmental organisation Forum for the Future publishes Sustainable Returns: Industrial Biotechnology Done Well, a report authored by Jonathon Porritt and commissioned by the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum, the same body that sponsored the 2018 National Strategy. The 2013 report makes a strong case for the adoption of responsible innovation ideas. By referring to the RRI frameworks of the UK Technology Strategy Board and the Research Councils, the report occupies the position that the implementation of principles such as openness, transparency, the stimulation of a broad debate and the ‘consistent and ongoing involvement of society’ should be integral in promoting the industrial biotechnology sector. While the Sustainable Returns report does not provide details on how to facilitate stakeholder engagement and public dialogue, it introduces a list of ‘policy and industry mandates’. These reflect key ideas of the RRI agenda. These ‘mandates’ include, among others, (i) a commitment to achieve substantial societal and environmental benefits, (ii) the creation of regulatory and governance structures that put public interest and private gain on equal footing, (iii) the promotion of extensive stakeholder engagement, (iv) to pose no threat to human health, (v) achieve the highest standards of health and safety both for workers and surrounding communities, (vi) a commitment to production systems that optimize conditions for biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, (vi) to avoid any risk of gene transfer in the open environment, and (vii) to prevent adverse impacts on food security and the environment. Taken together, this is a substantial list of criteria. If translated into actual practice, these principles have the potential to increase public trust and to address some of the key concerns and safety risks that IB can generate.
It is surprising then, that many of the recommendations laid out in the Sustainable Returns report have disappeared in more recent policy pronouncements. A 2017 landscape review ‘Developing a Strategy for Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in the UK’ does not mention any of the above principles. The 2018 National Strategy also engages little with RRI ideas. The term “RRI” is mentioned once – on the second-last page of the report. The report neither defines or provides operational ideas for the RRI concept. In contrast to the 2013 ‘Sustainable Returns’ report, it does not mention any principles or mandates, nor does it use terms such as ‘stakeholder engagement’, ‘broad public dialogue’, ‘consistent and ongoing involvement of society’ or ‘anticipation of future impacts’ and ‘transparency’. It also does not refer to concerns for the wellbeing of workers or the communities surrounding industrial biotechnology lab facilities or production sites and references to wider societal concerns, such as potential adverse effects on the environment, are absent.