ASU researcher explores responsible innovation

Feb 15, 2014

An engineer works in the lab on a promising research project. He follows all the rules, works with the materials available to him and produces quality work. He never lies, cheats or steals. His research eventually results in a new technological innovation. Everybody wins.

But five or 10 years down the road, a byproduct of that new technology proves to be harmful to the environment. What if this unintended consequence could have been easily avoided had the engineer made a simple change in his research process?

While it may be difficult to foresee, the work of scientists and engineers often has a societal impact. Arizona State University professor Erik Fisher is interested in helping them think about these impacts before it's too late.

Fisher leads a project called Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR), which includes studies of 30 labs in three different countries to see how responsible innovation can best be achieved. He presented his research today (February 15) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

While "socio-technical integration" is a new way of doing science that may take some getting used to, it could make a big difference for the impact of future research on society. There are consequences for failing to take humanistic concerns into consideration.

"We can make research funding decisions that aren't socially equitable," Fisher said. "We can set up projects and programs that have promises that are too good to be true."

Fisher's research focuses on responsible innovation – a relatively new policy concept that came to life 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. Natural scientists haven't generally done this because of the nature of the field.

How can we ensure responsible innovation? One way is through sociotechnical integration, which brings trained in ethics together with natural scientists in the lab. Fisher has seen first-hand success in these collaborations - he worked in a nano-scale engineering laboratory and partnered with an engineer like the one in the above example. Together, they talked through the research process and realized that by simply using a different chemical catalyst, they could mitigate potentially negative environmental impacts of the project and improve worker safety.

At ASU, Fisher helps doctoral students studying ethics and responsible innovation to find laboratories that are willing to try these types of collaborations. They work with the natural scientists to understand their and ask some fundamental questions – like what are you doing, why are you doing it, how could you do it differently and who might care. When concerns or challenges arise, the natural and social scientists tackle them together.

Another impetus for responsible innovation is when science the public doesn't understand is funded. For example, many people are skeptical about the safety of eating food with genetically modified organisms (GMO's). Others are apprehensive about the use of nuclear power. Does it make sense to invest lots of time and money into these scientific endeavors without giving thought to how society will react to them?

"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.

Explore further: Can Chinese innovation help address the climate crisis?

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User comments : 10

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The Shootist
1 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2014
"proves to be harmful to the environment'

Worshiping Gaia is beneath everyone.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2014
"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.

Read more at: http://phys.org/n...html#jCp
Luddites never die.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (2) Feb 16, 2014
What good are social scientists if they don't have a pragmatic understanding of the world we live in? As I was reading the article, I was conjuring images of a 1984-esque lab staffed with ethics monitors, who shadow the researchers. And for all that hypothetical effort, how many times would the outcome of potentially "dangerous" (whatever your interpretation) research have been predictable? Or entirely been the aegis of one individual, one small group, even one country? Not to mention the realization of products goes way beyond researchers in labs. Exhorting researchers to only do good things (by whatever means) seems to me a feckless way to try to solve a vaguely defined problem.

I guess the basic question is not so much do we have the will to make such decisions, but are we even wise enough to know when they should be made? (That's a rhetorical question, BTW)

Like it or not, we can't help but to acquire dangerous knowledge.
MrVibrating
not rated yet Feb 16, 2014
Seems like a desperate attempt of woolly science to find relevancy in real research.. but in reductio ad absurdum; any developments posing a non-zero risk of destroying the universe should be open-sourced to all and sundry? That might be the quickest way to minimise the uncertainty, but not necessarily be the safest..

Or maybe social scientists should just stick to analysing Faecebook trends?
Sigh
not rated yet Feb 16, 2014
And for all that hypothetical effort, how many times would the outcome of potentially "dangerous" (whatever your interpretation) research have been predictable?

True, but some things are predictable. I have argued with a friend that the benefits of e.g. golden rice are too important to give up on genetic engineering, and that new techniques remove the risks of inserting the new gene at some random point in the genome, potentially disrupting regulatory networks. He still wants it outlawed, on the grounds that companies like Monsanto can't be trusted with that sort of technology. That reaction is rather predictable when the first GMO many people have heard of was Round-Up ready soybeans, aimed only at making more money. It's also a predictable response to the cavalier attitude biotech companies took to the possible risks of inserting a gene at a random location. A bit more forethought could increase acceptance.

Sigh
not rated yet Feb 16, 2014
Then there is nanotechnology. The whole point of it is that material properties change when you make particles very small, yet some argue that no new safety testing is needed, because it's all the same material that has been used for years. Then it's rather predictable that some of those new properties will turn round and bite you, like here: http://phys.org/n...bes.html
Nestle
not rated yet Feb 16, 2014
the benefits of e.g. golden rice are too important to give up on genetic engineering
The golden rice is just quite weak argument for it. For example, its introduction would destroy the precious biodiversity (the farmers developed dozens of rice varieties, well suited to particular climate and resistance of local pests - so you cannot replace them all with single variety). Its terminator genes may result into massive failure of global harvest and its yellow color masks the presence of mycotoxins, i.e. important indicator of food safety. All these factors just belong into criterions of responsible innovations and it's very easy to predict them. If someone like you tries to ignore them, then there is smelling something.
Sigh
not rated yet Feb 17, 2014
its introduction would destroy the precious biodiversity

That's the point my firend was making about the politics and economics: you can't trust the big companies. Biodiversity loss is not an inevitable result of the introduction of a modified variety. You could either add nutritional value to multiple varieties (expensive), or crossbreed the modified variety with local strains.
Its terminator genes may result into massive failure

I don't think it has those. The license agreement says
The farmers will then be able to grow, save, consume, replant and sell the resulting rice crop

You can't save seeds and replant if there are terminator genes. That is their primary function from the point of view of biotech companies. Ironically, if you are opposed to GM, you can also see them as a safety measure.

If someone like you tries to ignore them, then there is smelling something.
Sigh
not rated yet Feb 17, 2014
If someone like you tries to ignore them, then there is smelling something.

Please do tell me what defines someone like me, and what you smell.
Nestle
not rated yet Feb 17, 2014
you can't trust the big companies
Even big company could produce many varieties. This is not a principal obstacle of biodiversity.
That is their primary function from the point of view of biotech companies
I know what's their primary function (it's a profit protection of Monsanto), but it's a huge disadvantage for farmers: they cannot use their own seeds freely. Which is another barrier of biodiversity, btw.

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