2021. 02. 02.

A brief talk with René von Schomberg

René von Schomberg

  • Philosopher and STS specialist
  • Currently Guest Professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt
  • He holds PhD’s from the University of Twente (NL) (Science and Technology Studies) and J.W.Goethe University in Frankfurt (Philosophy)
  • European Union Fellow at George Mason University, the USA in 2007
  • Working at the European Commission since 1998
  • https://renevonschomberg.wordpress.com/

DISCLAIMER: The interview was held in a personal capacity. The views expressed are based on the chapter ‘Why Responsible Innovation’ published in ‘The International Handbook on Responsible Innovation. A Global Resource’ (2019). Hence, the views expressed here may under no circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission.


#COCHANGE2020: Let’s dig first into the history of RRI. Being the founding father of the RRI policy, how do you see the development of this concept? What was your role, and what were the shortcomings?

We must go back to 2007-8 now when RRI was built around a couple of concepts which are the origin for a call for institutional change in the area science, technology and innovation. One source was surely the call for an institutionalisation of ‘collective co-responsibility’. This example will also be picked up in my open lecture and has been published already in 2007 in an EC working paper. Simultaneously, the other source was my involvement in and critical reflection on the EC’s science and society programme (earlier Science in Society, i.e., SiS, then Science with and for Society, i.e., SWAFS). At that time in 2007, it had a couple of shortcomings.

The most apparent one was related to ethics. A lot of what I call an ‘ethics of evaluation’ was typically found in transdisciplinary ELSA-type projects assessing the Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects in nano- and biotechnologies. These were always post-factum stories and constitute an evaluative form of ethics. What was clearly lacking is an ethics addressing the inherent normativity of science, namely an assessment of what type of technologies would respond to publicly acceptable values or preferably values which reflect the urgency of major societal challenges. What has been traditionally the starting point for STS studies or Technology Assessments is how science institutions take responsibility for negative outcomes and consequences of technologies and innovations. However, it was hardly addressed what type of results we want to get out of science, technology and innovation. That was at the same time, a big deficit in the EU science and innovation policy. We run after the negative outcomes while the benefits of science and technology outcomes seemed to be equated with market-success. So if some product became successful on the market, all these were considered a benefit, associated with a predominantly positive macroeconomic outcome. This ideology tells you that it does not matter what type of innovations are concerned,  as they allegedly all contributed indirectly to general prosperity. This ideology is fundamentally flawed and results in a government taking over the responsibility for all the risks of R&I. This was a shortcoming in the SiS programme as most researchers in the science and technology studies (STS) or the philosophy of science side always concentrated on risk governance and possible negative outcomes and not what we wanted to get out of innovation, a socially desirable outcome. The second deficit was already the participatory movement in nano- and biotechnologies related to these technologies’ development. The need for the responsible development of these technologies was already in EC documents in 2005-2006. But the studies were not about innovation as such, or rather innovation governance, but on pure technology development. This has become a serious deficit also reflected in the biotechnologies industries. This is why the component of anticipatory governance emerged, and a call to integrate foresight with technology assessment which preferably also should take place, in the policy process. Looking back now, we did not have much foresight in the SiS programme either. Another deficit of the SiS programme was the narrow focus on exploiting the technological potential in R&I project and that it failed to understand the social dynamics surrounding processes of innovation.


#COCHANGE2020: How do you perceive the current situation of RRI on the EU policy front?

My RRI paper in 2012 touched upon the values that should drive innovation because science and innovation policy is up till now the only policy in the EU which is not aligned with any normative anchor point in the EU treaty. So if I take any other policy, for example, environmental policy, it is very much anchored in normative targets, it must ensure, among other, high-level protection for nature and humans. The precautionary principle guides those normative requirements, and itself has several normative elements. Now you do not find any related anchoring in science and technology development. The EU promotes the advance of R&I as an objective in itself. This approach originates in the 1950ies, and since then, the EU fosters science and technology as one of the first and most consensual principles. Just recently, we have with the event of Horizon Europe again increased the budget for research and innovation, even in times of economic downfall. It is backed up by the ideology that science and technology will drive innovation, resulting in an increased general economic welfare.

The societal challenges became under H2020 guiding principles for R&I, and from 2014 RRI advanced to be a cross-cutting issue. However, there were no mechanisms under Horizon 2020, which would drive innovations towards these goals. The important step for RRI is that with Horizon Europe, responsible research and innovation became a strategic objective.


#COCHANGE2020: There seems to be a radical change now in research funding: RRI disappeared as a term but reappeared as an overarching principle at the same time. What happened exactly?

With Horizon Europe, RRI can be fostered since now we do have a mechanism to drive innovation towards the SDGs. These mechanisms are, among others, the six missions; which was established by a substantial co-creation process with an enormous number of stakeholders involved. Although RRI is not explicitly mentioned in most work programmes, many of its features are there, such as co-creation, stakeholder involvement, citizens involvement in research agenda-setting etc. Note that this still may play out quite imperfectly, as research is always dependent on the actors who implement it. I have never seen an R&I funding programme that incorporated these points. Horizon Europe marks a shift in research policy by shifting the focus from supporting the key technologies (bio, nano, AI) to research and innovation missions. Tackling societal challenges is the top priority, not maximising the exploitation of technological potential. So, this opens the preferences towards a radical alternative. In the new funding programme, RRI is a strategic objective which is a legally stronger provision than simply a cross-cutting issue under H2020, in which it was dependent on the number of research beneficiaries who wanted to trigger it off.


#COCHANGE2020: The conceptualisation of RRI itself changed a lot in the last ten years, and I wonder how do you see it embedded in practice?

There are too many definitions of RRI. My original definition was probably the most radical one, as it required a social commitment to drive innovations towards the socially desirable end. Many scholars employed a watered-down version or related to a simple set of key features. The challenge is to define desirable societal outcomes which in itself are the result of a democratic deliberation process. In the case of the vaccine for COVID-19, the challenge was to establish access to vaccines as a global, planetary public good. We may not succeed further than making it regional (e.g. at EU level) or national public goods. Now, we all realise that if we want a vaccine fast, we have to face that markets do not deliver automatically such a socially desirable outcome. In terms of developing such a vaccine, ideally, it should be established as a ‘planetary public good’. It needs to be accessible at a reasonable cost for everyone. It needs to become a public good as the COVID-19 open science illustrates. In 2012 I left the EC RRI unit. The EC was not ready to test the mechanism to drive innovation towards societal challenges. It all seemed a failure, and I shifted to Open Science policy which from 2014 evolved progressively. An open collaboration of researchers in sharing data before publishing is now a top priority. Researchers got used to this only in exceptional cases such as during previous emerging public health issues (Ebola, Zika) as a moral imperative, but normally the R&I system inhibits such acts as it would restrict the possibility of research to publish their work, as early knowledge sharing would imply the loss of originality. Now everybody realises in the case of emerging public health issues, that early knowledge and data sharing simply implies saving human lives. So, the only thing that can help is a radical open science policy. We see that there are still problems with companies not sharing testing results of vaccines on time. We only start comparing vaccines once they are at or passed the approval process for marketing. But from the researchers’ side, all went in the case of COVID-19 in a pretty radically open way. Public authorities struggled to force multinational companies to keep them liable for their final products, if negative side-effects may occur. For RRI, the challenge remains if we want to establish public goods. Why should we not apply the rationale of open science as practices with COVID-19 also to all SDGs? Why would COVID-19 remain the exceptional case? Why don’t we do it all the time? In reality, in the last two decades, only a very few new antibiotics have been marketed. We will face a worrying extent of infections in hospitals – as the currently available antibiotics lose their effectiveness. Why are we not making the same public investment for this area? Currently, we have with the feature of mission-oriented research a mechanism to compensate for market failure.


#COCHANGE2020: If we could go back in time, what else would you do in coining and promoting the concept of RRI?

It is not easy to say what could have been done differently. The main issue here is the public awareness and the political consensus-building around the necessity to practice RRI. In this case, it required to overturn a decades-long ideology of promoting innovation as a goal in itself.  The research community was also well-served with this ideology. One could not expect things to change quickly. As always, external events can change the course. In this sense, the event of COVID-19 was a gift for the promotion of RRI and Open Science. We are now at a point that the lessons learned will have a lasting impact beyond COVID-19.


#COCHANGE2020: The question that excites most of us in Co-Change is how you read the current RRI landscape?

The existing thing is to help to frame mission-oriented research as RRI projects. The missions will be the result of co-creation and co-design. Two major challenges remain to address market deficits with RRI requires (1) reform of our main institutions’ incentive systems and (2) public governance of our economy. I think there are multiple contributions to that, such as the doughnut economy, the circular economy, and other stories. These are consistent with RRI, and there is still an insufficient institutionalisation for them. The other challenge I work on with colleagues is to call on research organisations to move to a different reward system. We currently waste resources and efficiency by driving researchers to publish as much as possible. It would be more important to see how researchers collaborate and share knowledge and engage with stakeholders. Recently change and transition has started in some countries. The EC will also promote coordination with stakeholders to promote the improvement of research assessment procedures.


#COCHANGE2020: RRI, as a concept, found its way to get into the EU policies in a contested way. What do you expect in the future? How do you see the future or end of RRI in the EU?

RRI  can be seen as a result of a longer step by step process.  The first step is credible research based on codes of conduct and research integrity standards. A next step is to make research more responsive to societal challenges by opening up research processes. A final, and the most difficult step, is to make research anticipatory and contributing to the establishment of public goods. In the last thirty years, much is left to the market, and public goods and even our knowledge commons had eroded. Knowledge has been commodified by industrial actors which leads to a crisis of access and availability of public goods. Predominantly in areas where multinationals dominate, such as the agriculture and pharmaceuticals industries we need a stronger involvement of public authorities to prevent the further erosion of public goods.


#COCHANGE2020: Are you planning any further actions to promote the application of RRI?

I will focus on how research can become more productive in terms of delivering on socially desirable outcomes: a real RRI subject matter. So in the next years, I will personally work on that. In my work at the University of Darmstadt, I will do seminars on responsible innovation, on scientific controversies and public decision-making, among others. In my recent open lecture, I addressed some other themes, such as collective co-responsibility, public governance of the economy, anticipatory governance in research and innovation. (The powerpoint presentation of this lecture is downloadable here.)