RI in the lab: Impacting the course of biomedical innovation
Tell us about your background and how you came to work in the RI FSP?
I am originally from the Philippines, where I finished a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology. I then completed a master’s degree in neuroscience from VU University Amsterdam and University of Bordeaux. I then moved to Australia for a PhD in Bioethics (Society and Culture program) at the University of Tasmania, where I investigated ethical issues in clinical trials involving people with dementia. I am now working as a post-doctoral fellow for the CSIRO-ANU responsible innovation collaboration, where I am based at the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform and the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. My area of focus is responsible innovation in precision health, particularly equity and diversity considerations in systems biology research and end-of-life care.
How has your background in biomedical science helped you navigate the intersection of RI and health sciences?
My background in molecular biology, neuroscience, and epidemiology has been immensely valuable, as it allowed me to better understand the science behind the technologies I am investigating and to communicate seamlessly with scientists. It has also helped establish trust and collaborations with researchers, facilitating the formulation of pragmatic recommendations that scientists can adopt and integration of equity considerations in scientific publications.
One of the challenges of RI is that perceptions of whether RI is happening may differ to what’s actually happening. Can you tell us about how you’ve been tackling that challenge through your current project?
Responsible innovation can happen in a myriad of ways; however, it is crucial to acknowledge that there are different conceptualisations of responsibility. I think researchers and research projects that are open to having an embedded ethicist or social scientist are already taking a step towards responsible innovation. It suggests willingness to discuss, critically reflect, and even respond to findings from associated ethics/social science research. Personally, I believe that this is just one of the ways though, and there are definitely additional methods that researchers can employ to facilitate responsible innovation – such as stakeholder/end-user engagement, co-production, consumer leadership, and life cycle analysis to evaluate a product’s sustainability and environmental impacts.
In my current project, I am grateful to be embedded in a team that gives me the opportunity to directly share my findings, visit their laboratories, conduct interviews, participate in team meetings, and incorporate equity considerations in their publications. Longitudinal engagement with a project allows me to better understand the structural and cultural drivers of scientific practice, which then influences the extent to which equity and diversity considerations can be incorporated. It also allows me to triangulate interview data with notes from meetings and institutional contexts, facilitating the development of recommendations that are context-sensitive and that account for power dynamics within and beyond research laboratories.
What has this experience been like? Have you found that researchers are receptive to receiving feedback?
Being embedded in a project provides unique opportunities for directly impacting its course and for encouraging researchers to be more responsive to social context. Overall, the scientists I have worked with were receptive to feedback. However, the extent to which they can implement that feedback is highly dependent on their overall role in the project and the stage of the research. For instance, while I can suggest to researchers that they involve more translators to recruit a more culturally and linguistically-diverse participant pool, it’s not necessarily something that they can easily implement – especially if the scientists I am talking to are not responsible for participant recruitment, have a limited budget, and/or have already finished collecting samples.
As an RI researcher, have you faced any ethical challenges in being embedded in the team? How have you navigated these?
There are definitely challenges associated with being embedded in a research team. During the height of the pandemic, gathering situated data from face-to-face interviews and site visits is not always possible due to public health restrictions that aim to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission. I had to postpone several visits and had to shift to online methodologies, such as participating in online team meetings and scheduling casual chats with various researchers to keep myself up to date with the study’s progress. My role as an embedded ethicist or social scientist can also be misunderstood. Scientists may just view me as someone to help with ethics applications or assist with resolving disputes within the team. For embedded RI researchers, it is crucial to highlight to biomedical scientists that while they are happy to assist with certain matters, they also have their own research objectives and questions.
Do you see RI shifting towards more of a two-way model in future, in light of your research?
The main goal of RI in my research study is indeed to facilitate a two-way dialogue, wherein social scientists/ethicists just do not observe biophysical scientists, but rather, closely engage with them to foster reflexivity and encourage more responsible practice that accommodates ethical, societal, and sustainability considerations. In addition, embedding in the “lab” has provided me with extensive situated understanding of associated ethical and societal issues, which are crucial in the development of an RI framework that accounts for Australia’s multicultural population, research environment, and innovation infrastructure.
More than a two-way model, I think it is also important to develop a three- or even four-way model, wherein multidisciplinary research teams engage with a variety of stakeholders, especially people from traditionally under-represented backgrounds who may be greatly impacted by scientific findings and innovation products.
One of your studies on precision health explored the risk of some new innovations exacerbating societal inequities. Have you found through your lab-based research whether there is a connection between ethnically diverse research teams and ethnically inclusive research outputs?
There could be a connection, especially with studies that involve humans and collect samples/data from them. Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) scientists can help the team better communicate and liaise with CALD communities, increasing the chances that community members can be recruited in the study and that the research design and questions can be tailored to the needs of the community. However, having CALD researchers is absolutely not enough. Their role in the study also has a huge influence on what they can do to increase participant diversity. If they are not involved in participant recruitment and mainly receive materials for further scientific analysis, then they may have less of a say on participant demographics.
It is also vital to acknowledge the “bamboo ceiling”, wherein minority scientists face barriers in progressing to leadership positions, affecting their ability to initiate studies that address the concerns of traditionally under-represented communities.
Finally, the study context and existing institutional arrangements/collaborations play a big role on who can be recruited for the study. If the study can only recruit participants from a location that is not as diverse as major Australian cities, then it can greatly impact which groups are represented by the study’s findings.
What excites you most about RI as a field of research?
I am really excited by how interdisciplinary and embedded RI research is. I get to draw from my training in the biosciences and bioethics and then combine it with frameworks and perspectives from responsible innovation, science and technology studies, and science communication. I also believe that RI plays a key role in making sure that humanities, ethics, and social science insights “bite”, reaching key players and impacting stakeholders and end users. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to work at CSIRO and the ANU, collaborating with HASS (humanities, arts, and social sciences) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) researchers from both institutions to generate situated insights and pragmatic recommendations on making biomedical innovation more equitable.