Is the Australian public on board with responsible innovation?
A new report from the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform (RI FSP) released today holds a mirror to the emerging field of responsible innovation in Australia.
The report presents results from the 2021 Responsible Innovation National Baseline Survey, which examined public perceptions of responsible innovation. The survey specifically investigated the role responsible innovation has in ensuring future science and technology delivers positive outcomes for Australian society. It measured public perceptions of researchers (e.g., their integrity, competence, and practices), research institutions (e.g., trust in universities, CSIRO, and private sector research and development), the governance of future science and technology, and the outcomes of future science and technology for society.
How did the study come about?
Responsible innovation (RI) is inherently ambitious: it asks us to look at the intent, principles, and practices associated with developing new and novel innovations in science and technology, and to think carefully about the kind of impacts such innovations may have on society and the broader environment, both now and into the future.
RI research has proliferated in the UK, Europe and the US over the past two decades. Yet it has only been an emerging focus for Australia’s research and innovation sector over the last five years or so, with the RI FSP established by CSIRO in late 2017. While RI is comparable with other areas of research that seek to ensure socially responsible outcomes, the field is distinct in its focus on the potentially disruptive role of science and technology for society, and science practices which support responsiveness to society. For example, anticipating and managing potential impacts, engaging with key stakeholders and broader society, and reflecting on broader societal issues.
Why is this study important?
This is the first study to design a robust survey tool for measuring public perceptions of RI.
Measuring and monitoring public perceptions of RI is an important undertaking. By understanding what the public think about the conduct of scientific research and innovation in Australia, we can explore what is important to people in the development of novel technologies, potentially identifying areas of strength and weakness. Such information may then be used to inform strategies to enhance the way research is conducted, in line with responsible innovation principles and practices.
Here are some of the highlights from the report:
- Australians hold modestly favourable perceptions of responsible innovation, on average, especially in terms of scientists anticipating the impacts of future science and technology. However, more can always be done to improve perceptions.
- The Australian public have less favourable perceptions of scientists being broad and inclusive when engaging with the public; and less confidence in the governance arrangements for regulating future science and technology research and development.
- Australians have trust in the research and innovation sector overall. However, they place greater trust in scientists working within research organisations than in the research organisations themselves.
- Trust in the research and innovation sector was significantly associated with perceptions of responsible innovation, especially science practices supporting responsiveness to society and the perceived effectiveness of risk management practices.
- Public perceptions that socially responsible outcomes would arise from future science and technology were mostly associated with perceived benefits, trust in the research and innovation sector, and perceived risk management effectiveness.
How to use this report
The national baseline survey was conducted in 2021, at a time when increasing environmental, social and economic pressures were demanding fast-tracked solutions from science and technology. Such advances include the acceleration of biotechnology-driven vaccines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; increased visibility over the use of novel negative emissions technologies to tackle climate change; and the rise of complementary proteins derived from synthetic biology-enabled technologies.
New science and technology will continue to play a key role in Australia’s national security and economic prosperity. Some new and emerging technologies are also expected to revolutionise many aspects of our society. However, the novelty of these innovations means their risks and benefits to society are not well understood; and relatedly, societal views, opinions, and likely responses to these innovations are not well understood. This is where responsible innovation can play a key role through the enactment of research practices, procedures, and systems that help identify the potential risks, benefits and uncertainties associated with future science and technology.
From here, the baseline results in the report can now be used to monitor changes in public perceptions of responsible innovation over time using reliable and valid measures.
We hope that the report methodology and results will be used to inform other benchmarking reports for RI, as we understand this to be a first-of-its-kind survey in seeking to empirically measure and model the way public perceptions of responsible innovation work.
The report authors have conducted a follow up survey in 2022, with findings expected to be published in 2023.
McCrea R, Coates, R, Hobman E, Schmidt S and Lacey J (2022) Responsible Innovation: What do Australians think? Results from the 2021 Responsible Innovation National Baseline Survey CSIRO.