2021. 02. 19.

A brief talk with Justine Lacey

Justine Lacey

  • currently the research director of the Australian CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform
  • she holds a PhD in Ethics and Natural Resource Management
  • she is the member of Co-Change Advisory Board


#COCHANGE2020: Here in Europe, RRI approach has appeared in more and more research projects. What is the actual state of RRI in Australia?

The first time I heard RRI was in 2015. I was at a technology assessment conference in Europe and Rene Von Schomberg was one of the speakers. There was a discussion about RRI and I remember thinking at the time that this language would never work here in Australia, as it was totally new but also different for us. But just two years later, in 2017, one of my colleagues at a university here was involved in a Horizon 2020 project, which was a global study of RRI practice. Australia was one of the global case studies, and researchers at the university and CSIRO were interviewed about what RRI could be in Australia. The study found that people were unfamiliar with RRI. They hadn't really even heard of it unless they were social scientists or had research contacts in Europe. But it was also found that people liked the term, they thought it was an intuitively good thing, particularly when questions like these were put to them: Does your organization have a research ethics process? How do they deal with gender and diversity? But it was initially framed by that research as having a strong organisational focus on responsible research.

#COCHANGE2020: You are employed at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization which is Australia's national science research agency. You are the research director of the platform called Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform. How was it established? 

It was in 2017 that CSIRO started a modest three-year project called the Responsible Innovation Initiative. It was formed as part of a larger program of research investigating diverse areas of future science and technology development. CSIRO’s future science platforms are targeted investments in Horizon 3 research across diverse portfolios and the science undertaken in these areas is aimed at underpinning new innovations across those sectors and growing the new scientific capability of the future. Responsible innovation started to be couched in this context as a way of focusing on the importance of the interface between science, technology and society.

I think even within the science and research community in Australia, there’s a really diverse understanding of what RRI is and what it should be. That's still a part of the work for us in Australia. Is there a single definition, should there be, or should it be diverse in its interpretation and application? Does RRI look different across different industries? So, we're still looking at some of the very conceptual questions around it. 

#COCHANGE2020: Is the concept of RRI already a part of your national science strategy?

It is definitely playing a role. CSIRO has quite a unique place in the Australian research and innovation system because it's the national science agency and also the largest publicly funded research agency. We started the first RI project 5 years ago now (here, we call it RI not RRI), and that initial project has grown into what is now the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform

But we don’t want to hold and develop this concept inside our organization alone. And so, we have established some collaborations with universities to advance and embed RI research across Australia. We co-fund post-docs and PhD students with a number of Australian universities, and the aim is to provide these early career researchers with opportunities to work on emerging RI questions related to future science and technology in both our applied research environment, and also develop their skills in an academic research setting at the same time. This is because we believe that RI will be valuable across diverse research institutions. There is a real commitment to supporting the development of the next generation of scientists, and also understanding their priorities for RI and how they are shaping RI through their own scientific practice. Our early career researchers all work on different topics from the development of responsible hydrogen economies through to the future of precision health and the use of artificial intelligence across different contexts, so the initial RI research questions and their application are intentionally very diverse. Of course, the arrival of COVID-19 has even shaped the development of some new RI projects that we're now exploring now with some of our health and disease specialists. 

#COCHANGE2020: Does the industry apply the concept of RRI in Australia?

I can't answer this question definitively at this stage. I would say that responsible innovation is currently much more recognized and used by researchers. But if you participate in forums with government and business stakeholders, they have heard of the term. At a recent conference on digital disruption, the moderator asked the audience had heard of or were familiar with responsible innovation and many people recognized it. Many more than I expected, in fact.

So it is being picked up. Right now for many businesses, in Australia as with the rest of the world, the changes and responsibilities that are being introduced by increasing digitalization and questions of data privacy, how this is going to affect the future of business, how much data should be collected and when, how can it be monetized or even used by secondary and tertiary parties is in focus. In fact, all these questions about ethics and trust are quite high on the agenda.  

#COCHANGE2020: Please tell me something about your actual research as a social scientist.

I don’t get to do a lot of research at the moment but I have been working with a great colleague at Flinders University in Adelaide to explore how directors of boards of publicly listed companies manage the interface of their organisations with society. Part of this is about exploring the changing nature of trust in institutions and how this might play a part in determining the traits of socially innovative organisations. And my interest in examining how corporations operate around some of those really ambiguous questions like how they maintain a relationship with not only their stakeholders but the broader society, and deliver what they need to deliver, is because I'm also interested in how science agencies and other research institutions also manage this interface and trust with society.  

#COCHANGE2020: Some of your researchers partner with Indigenous people. How can Indigenous communities be involved in the RRI approach?

Some of our colleagues have long been working with Traditional Owners as co-researchers, but a great recent example that introduces a new technology is the coalition of partners that were involved in a Healthy County Partnership to explore how AI can be used to transform the environmental management in Kakadu National Park. Their focus was on combining Traditional Owner knowledge with artificial intelligence to find more efficient ways of managing pest plants, restoring wetlands and bringing the protected species, magpie geese, back to these habitats. It is a really great story that shows how you can bring established traditional knowledge and new ways of doing together in the right way.

Similarly, one of our RI postdocs up at Charles Darwin University is working with CSIRO colleagues and Traditional Owners to determine how technologies like drones might be used in environmental management. Their work on co-designing and co-developing modes of using these technologies in ways that are appropriate and acceptable are disrupting the idea that autonomous technology is about taking people out of the landscape. In this case, they are developing ways of thinking about ensuring young Traditional Owners are involved, that the connection to country and respect for sacred places is observed. Their research is about using Indigenous governance in the loop of innovation design thinking. I also think it shows that we are not at the mercy of technology.  

#COCHANGE2020: What do you think about the future of RRI? Do you have some dreams regarding the implementation of this concept in your country?

Absolutely. And although this is not directly related to the RI research that is underway, I want to mention that the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia currently has a discussion paper out and they indicate that social sciences finds itself at a crossroads right now. Because COVID-19 has affected the Australian university sector so significantly, the Academy is asking whether social sciences will simply decline over the next decade or rise to the challenge of asserting its relevance and innovate. 

And when you look at the demands facing the world, is this not the moment that the social sciences should also take on the challenge to innovate, just as much as any other scientific discipline? Although RRI is not merely social science, I see the opportunity for the social sciences in RI. In that, I think there's really exciting scientific work that can be done, and the idea of responsible innovation unlocking this potential to think differently and creatively and to challenge ourselves and our disciplines is something I'm very excited about. 

I also think about my own responsibility in that whole question of how science and technology is changing the world. You know, you really can't hide from your responsibility as a scientist, no matter what your discipline is. It's a big responsibility. So the question or the challenge to us is how we make that contribution from science the best we can.