Decent Work and Economic Growth

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Responsible Research and Innovation

  • Job TimmermansEmail author
Living reference work entry



Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a novel approach to the governance of science, research, and innovation (R&I) that seeks to broaden decision-making processes to realize ethically acceptable, societally desirable, and sustainable R&I. Although the concept is still debated, the following shared characteristics of RRI have been distinguished:
  1. 1.

    Diversity and inclusion

  2. 2.

    Anticipation and reflection

  3. 3.

    Openness and transparency

  4. 4.

    Responsiveness and adaptive change

  5. 5.


  6. 6.

    Social utility


Governance of Science, Research, and Innovation

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a novel approach to the governance of science, research, and innovation (for the sake of brevity abbreviated to R&I from now on) (Fisher and Rip 2013; Stilgoe et al. 2013). Governance can be understood as a complex multitude of language, agencies, and technologies that seek to shape individual and collective behavior (Glerup and Horst 2014). Nested in the ongoing debate on how R&I can best be governed and governed by itself, RRI seeks to broaden decision-making processes to realize ethically acceptable, societally desirable, and sustainable R&I (Von Schomberg 2013). Dealing with the (inherent) uncertainty of R&I processes, this entails moving away from ex ante risk and benefits calculations toward a governing R&I “upstream,” intervening early on in the R&I process, rather than downstream when outcomes have already become more settled. In addition, building on deliberative forms of governance, RRI seeks to democratize R&I by engaging stakeholders and the public. This way a collective responsibility is realized in which all actors involved become co-responsible for controlling and directing R&I toward desirable impacts and ensure its societal embedding. Lastly, building on foresight studies and R&I assessment methods such as technology assessment, RRI also is an instance of anticipatory governance: it is portrayed as an anticipatory forward-looking approach that seeks to understand how the present dynamics of R&I practices shape the future and envision the future.

Meaning of RRI Not Fixed

Although RRI has gained considerable momentum within both policy and academic discourse, it is still an emerging concept, the meaning of which is still far from fixed or stable (Owen et al. 2012; Wickson and Carew 2014; Rip 2018). Not only do several definitions and concepts of RRI coexist concurrently, but it is also being framed differently in different local settings. For example, in the UK RRI is focused on the impacts of R&I as an extension of traditional ethical approval (Macnaghten and Owen 2011), while in the Netherlands, the MVI program (NWO 2016) experiments with a grassroots approach funding individual responsible R&I projects (Burget et al. 2017; Timmermans 2017). This means that several different accounts of RRI available, although displaying a significant overlap, also show notable divergence and room for further development toward a consensus position that can be implemented practically. To lay out this current playfield, the four most salient accounts of RRI that have dominated the discourse so far are briefly discussed.

Accounts of RRI

Four accounts (definitions and/or frameworks) of RRI have been dominating the discourse from its advent, namely, the accounts by von Schomberg (2013); the European Commission (Geoghegan-Quinn 2012); Stilgoe et al. (2013); and van den Hoven (2013). All four have been brought forward when RRI was first emerging and have not been developed (significantly) further since. Moreover, despite efforts to unify these four accounts, for example, by the RRI tools project (Klaassen et al. 2014) and Wickson and Carew (2014), no alternative original accounts of RRI have thus far been proposed (Timmermans and Blok 2018). The one true exception to this is the conceptualization of RRI as a meta-responsibility by Stahl et al. (2013). These accounts conceptualize RRI as “a higher level responsibility or meta-responsibility that aims to shape, maintain, develop, coordinate and align existing and novel research and innovation-related processes, actors and responsibilities with a view to ensuring desirable and acceptable research outcomes” (Stahl et al. 2013). This account, however, has not been taken up widely (Timmermans 2017), probably due to its rather high level of abstractness which also amounts to a lack of practical guidance on how it can be implemented. Therefore, it has been left out of this discussion of accounts of RRI.

von Schomberg’s Definition

The probably most widely used definition of the term was suggested by von Schomberg who sees it as “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view on the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)” (Von Schomberg 2013). What this definition shares with other accounts of RRI that have been forwarded over the last decade is the emphasis that it places on the overall objective of RRI, which is to ensure the societal acceptability and desirability of both R&I processes and products. It argues that existing R&I and accompanying governance frameworks do not succeed in realizing this objective because they evaluate the positive benefits of innovation “primarily in macro-economic terms” and the negative impact “exclusively […] on [technical] safety rather than broader societal and ethical aspects.” Moreover, von Schomberg emphasizes the process character of RRI and sketches some of the important qualities and objectives of both R&I processes and products if they are to be deemed RRI. Another familiar theme within RRI that is included in this definition is the focus on a democratic governance of R&I by demanding the involvement of societal actors into the R&I process, as well as the process being transparent to ensure their meaningful interaction. The account by von Schomberg intentionally builds on pre-existing approaches and methods that have a similar aspiration as RRI such as technology assessment (TA), science and technology studies (STS), midstream modulation, ethics, and anticipatory governance. The account does this by positioning RRI as an umbrella term that encompasses all these predecessors.

Although at the time of his writing von Schomberg was working for the Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, he explicitly states to voice his “personal version behind RRI.” Nevertheless, the von Schomberg account intentionally takes a “European policy perspective,” criticizing, commenting, and building on existing European R&I policies (Von Schomberg 2013). Nevertheless, there are some striking similarities between von Schomberg’s and the European Commission’s definition of RRI, which is discussed next.

European Commission’s Definition and Six RRI Keys

Resembling the von Schomberg account, RRI has been defined by the European Commission (EC) as “societal actors (researchers, citizens, policymakers, business, third sector organisations, etc.) work[ing] together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society” (European Commission 2015). It implies close cooperation between all stakeholders in various strands comprising science education, the definition of research agendas, access to research results, and the application of new knowledge in full compliance with gender and ethics considerations.

This account of responsible research and innovation (RRI) was developed by the European Commission as part of their Science With and for Society (SWAFS) policy (European Commission 2017). Building on previous iterations of EU policies, it was first discussed in detail in a policy leaflet by the former European Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (Geoghegan-Quinn 2012) and later elaborated upon in official EC publications (European Commission 2015, 2017). It also is recognized as a central source of the EC account on RRI by the RRI literature (Owen et al. 2012; Burget et al. 2017; Timmermans 2017) and EU policy documents (European Commission 2017).

This account of RRI is especially influential within the European Union, where it was adopted as a cross-cutting issue of the most recent framework program of the EC (European Commission 2011). Apart from inclusion in diverse science and research projects funded by the EC, also dedicated projects were and are being funded by the EC to further develop and promote the uptake of RRI (e.g., GREAT-project 2013; New HoRRIzon 2017).

The account of the European Commission starts from the premise that research and innovation (R&I) needs to “respond to the needs and ambitions of society, and reflect its values.” This way R&I is better able to create “prosperity” and to “find the right answers to the [grand societal] challenges we face” such as renewable energy and the aging population. RRI then involves “that societal actors (researchers, citizens, policymakers, business, third sector organisations, etc.) work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society” (European Commission 2015).

To operationalize this definition, the EC account introduces six keys of RRI (see Table 1). These keys closely resemble and build on pillars put forward by the EU Commission in their Science and Society program (FP6) and Science in Society program (FP7). The most important key, which is regarded as RRI’s “main objective,” is public engagement and involving stakeholders. Although the other five keys – gender equality, science education, ethics, open access/open science, and governance – have merit on their own, they are predominantly discussed by the EC account as conditions and enablers of public/stakeholder engagement.
Table 1

The six RRI keys by the European Commission. (Source: Geoghegan-Quinn 2012)


RRI key



Public engagement

Joint participation and engagement in the R&I process of all societal actors – researchers, industry, policymakers, and civil society – in accordance with the value of inclusiveness, as reflected in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union


Open access

R&I must be open and transparent



Gender equality and integration into R&I process



Respect for fundamental rights and highest ethical standards


Science education

Enhancement of the educational process geared toward RRI



Policymakers have a responsibility to prevent harmful or unethical developments in R&I

The EC account differs notably from the other three accounts discussed here. Whereas the other accounts provide a rather comprehensive alternative perspective on R&I, the six keys of the EC account are related in a less coherent manner. In the first place, the different keys such as gender, transparency, and science education are categorically different and therefore necessarily supplement or complement each other. Moreover, some of the keys could be understood to enclose one or more of the others. Gender, for instance, can be regarded to be encompassed by ethics, while engagement could be regarded as part of governance. Nevertheless, due to its major influence on the RRI discourse and within EU-funded projects, the account has been included as a single account in this analysis. Despite its wide reach and influence on the discourse, and despite the fact that this account was being developed before and in parallel to them, the other accounts of RRI discussed in this paper do not contain any references to the EC account.

More recently, the successor of Geoghegan, EC Commissioner for Research, Science, and Innovation Moedas, introduced three “key conceptual insights” that function as goals for EU R&I policy termed the three Os (European Commission 2016) (see Table 2). The three Os are to be ingrained in the next framework program FP9 providing an alternative to and complementing the six keys.
Table 2

Three Os of the European Commission: open innovation, open science, and open to the world (European Commission 2016)

O1 – open innovation

The basic premise of open innovation is to introduce more actors in the innovation process so that knowledge can circulate more freely and be transformed into products and services that create new markets, fostering a stronger culture of entrepreneurship

O2 – open science

To publish under open access, to manage (open) data, to conduct professional research and engage with citizen science

O3 – open to the world

This means promoting international cooperation in the research community. Doing this will allow Europe to access the latest knowledge worldwide, recruit the best talent, tackle global challenges and create business opportunities in emerging markets

Stilgoe, Owen, and Macnaghten’s Definition and AIRR Framework

Jack Stilgoe, Richard Owen, and Phil Macnaghten conceived RRI as “taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present” (Stilgoe et al. 2013). The definition is intentionally kept broad, as the authors want to prevent it from hampering further debate on and development of the concept of RRI. The account starts from the aspiration to “include wider moral responsibility to society” into the innovation process. The “profound impacts” of innovation and the failure of existing innovation (governance) to take societal and ethical aspects into consideration call for a “democratization” of science and innovation. To this end, the Stilgoe et al. account proposes a responsible innovation that is both future-oriented and democratic.

The authors further elaborate upon their account by listing certain qualities or dimensions that should be fulfilled for R&I to be deemed RRI called the AIRR framework (see Table 3).
Table 3

Four dimensions of the AIRR framework. (Source: Stilgoe et al. 2013)






Describing and analyzing the impacts, intended or otherwise (e.g., economic, social, environmental), that might arise. This does not seek to predict but rather to support an exploration of possible impacts and implications that may otherwise remain uncovered and little discussed



Opening up such visions, purposes, impacts, and questioning to broader deliberation, dialogue, engagement, and debate in an inclusive way, i.e., inviting and listening to wider perspectives from publics and diverse stakeholders



Reflecting on the purposes of, motivations for, and potential implications of the research and the associated uncertainties, areas of ignorance, assumptions, framings, questions, dilemmas, and social transformations these may bring



Using anticipation, inclusiveness, and reflection to influence the direction and trajectory of the science and innovation process itself

Being anticipatory then entails raising, discussing, and responding to questions such as “what is possible?”, “what is known?”, “what is not known?”, and “what-if” questions. To this end, for example, scenarios or visions can be developed and assessed on their plausibility and meaningfulness, or foresight exercises can be undertaken such as technology assessment.

Similarly, inclusivity raises questions like “Are we engaging publics in dialogue?”, “Who is being represented?”, and “How serious and continuous is the discussion?”. A range of techniques and approaches have been developed and tested that support this dimension, such as focus groups, open innovation, citizens’ juries and panels, science shops, and consensus conferences.

Being reflexive asks scientists to put a mirror to their commitments, to be aware of limits to their knowledge, and to be mindful of the framing of issues. It raises questions such as “why should this research be undertaken?”, “who will benefit?”, “what are the alternatives?”, and “who will take responsibility if things go wrong?”. Reflexivity can be ensured by mechanisms such as multidisciplinary collaboration and training, codes of conduct, and embedding of social scientists and ethicists in laboratories.

Lastly, responsiveness requires the ability to respond to new knowledge, to answer new views and norms, and to demonstrate leadership and openness toward the questions and insights raised by the other three dimensions. To this end, for instance, open access and other mechanisms of transparency can be incorporated, a value-sensitive design approach can be implemented, or contributions could be made to standards setting and regulatory processes.

The Stilgoe et al. account has been of great influence on the RRI literature and projects, where it is widely cited (Timmermans 2017) and discussed (e.g., Wickson and Carew 2014; Zwart et al. 2014; Burget et al. 2017). Moreover, the account has been officially adopted by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which also (financially) supported the authors’ research (Stilgoe et al. 2013).

van den Hoven’s Definition: Design to Solve Moral Dilemmas

Developed in parallel to the other three accounts, van den Hoven (2013) argues that RRI is an activity or process which may give rise to previously unknown designs either pertaining to the physical world (e.g., designs of buildings and infrastructure), the conceptual world (e.g., conceptual frameworks, mathematics, logic, theory, software), the institutional world (social and legal institutions, procedures and organisation) or combinations of these, which when implemented expand the set of relevant feasible options regarding solving a set of moral problems” (van den Hoven 2013).

Similar to the other accounts of RRI, the account’s main objective is to produce societally acceptable and desirable innovations. Its point of departure is the profound impact of innovation on society. According to the van den Hoven account, traditional “ethics and the law” (van den Hoven 2013, p. 79) do not succeed in fully meeting this objective. For this reason, the account proposes a “transition in innovative thinking” based on “modern applied ethics.” It entails “ethical thinking and moral values” at an “early stage” of the innovation process. This allows “morally relevant actors” such as innovators and engineers to “anticipate and pre-empt moral concerns” in innovation processes early on instead of after their introduction into society.

What sets this account apart from the three other accounts is that it puts an emphasis on design. This account of RRI was developed by Jeroen van den Hoven based on (his) previous work on value-sensitive design (VSD) (van den Hoven et al. 2011). VSD is an approach first introduced in the realm of information technology to incorporate normative values into design processes of artifacts. van den Hoven and others pioneered broadening the application of this approach to design processes in general, eventually resulting in framing it as a novel way of innovating, named RRI.

This account of RRI especially is influential in the Netherlands, where it has been included as an important feature of the Responsible Innovation (MVI) program of the Dutch Research Council (NWO) (van den Hoven 2014; NWO 2016). In addition, it has been picked up by the RRI discourse and EU policy. For example, both von Schomberg and Stilgoe et al. (discussed above) refer to van den Hoven’s account as an ingredient of operationalizing RRI albeit not recognizing it as a distinct account of RRI by itself.

Shared Characteristics Between the Accounts

The discussion of the four accounts is representative of the current state of play of the RRI discourse, which is (still) characterized by the coexistence of multiple understandings of what it means to be responsible in research and innovation (Lubberink et al. 2017; Timmermans and Blok 2018). Nevertheless, various authors have aspired to define RRI by integrating the conceptual streams. The RRI tools project distinguishes the following shared characteristics of RRI (Klaassen et al. 2014):

Diversity and inclusion

Diverse and inclusive RRI processes should call for the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders in the early development of science and technology, both for normative democratic reasons and to broaden and diversify the sources of expertise and perspectives. In this respect, inclusive practices should lead to diverse practices. In reverse, diverse practices are more likely to be inclusive.

Anticipation and reflection

Anticipation concerns understanding how the present dynamics of research and innovation practices shape and envision the future. Therefore, one enables oneself to act on future challenges. In order to act adequately and be open to changes in direction, also reflection is required. This reflection concerns definitions of the problem(s) at issue, commitments, practices, and individual and institutional values, assumptions, and routines.

Openness and transparency

Openness and transparency are conditions for accountability, liability, and thus responsibility. This is an important aspect for publics to establish trust in science and politics. However, more openness does not automatically lead to more trust. The information has to be tailored to the needs of stakeholders in order to make sense to them.

Responsiveness and adaptive change

Responsiveness means responding to emerging knowledge, perspectives, views, and norms. Responsiveness is a condition for adaptive change. RRI requires a capacity to change or shape existing routines of thought and behavior but also the overarching organizational structures and systems in response to changing circumstances, new insights, and stakeholder and public values.

Elaborating to these four, van Hove and Wickson (2017) have added two additional shared elements to the list:


The need for ethical conduct within research practices.

Social utility

A requirement to direct research and innovation toward social utility.

History of RRI

While RRI has come to receive broader attention only recently, it is generally agreed that RRI is not a recent development but stretches back at least a decade (Grunwald 2011; Owen et al. 2013). The phrase RRI itself stems from the two earlier terms “responsible development” and “responsible innovation” that have been part of the discourses on scientific-technological advance and products, services, and systems, respectively (Grunwald 2011). And more specifically, the language of responsible innovation or development is associated with the rise of nanotechnology (Rip 2018). For instance, as early as 2003, the US Congress adopted a public law promoting “Responsible Development of Nanotechnology” (US Congress 2003), and in February 2008, the European Commission adopted the Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Research emphasizing responsible research (Jacob et al. 2013). As R&D on nanotechnology advanced, awareness of possible adverse consequences grew and fuelled the demand for more accountable and governable knowledge and science (Simakova and Coenen 2013). RRI can then be viewed as an initiative to answer that demand. While it was initially used in a technology assessment workshop on nanotechnology in 2007, as a policy concept, it first appeared at a 2011 workshop organized by the EC. In the wake of this workshop, RRI was included in the 7th Framework Program of the EC as part of the Science in Society framework (European Commission 2011).

Also RRI is regarded as a next evolutionary step in a much longer tradition building on developments in related fields and practices that have a longer history such as technology assessment (TA), social-technical integration research (STIR), science and technology studies (STS) (Owen et al. 2013), and ethical, legal, and social aspects (ELSA) research (Zwart et al. 2014). RRI is thus positioned in a long tradition of reflecting on research and innovation. It is argued that this tradition even dates back centuries to the seventeenth-century Enlightenment (Owen et al. 2013). At that time an informal contract between scientists and researchers on the one hand and society as a whole on the other arose. This contract confirmed a reciprocal relation between the contractors that ensured freedom, social license, and funding for research and innovation in exchange for knowledge, understanding, and value. It also implied certain standards and responsibilities that researchers and scientists should adhere to. The contract again became the center of attention in the second half of the twentieth century. Major developments in technology and R&D instigating unintended, unforeseen, and sometimes transformative consequences for society called for a renegotiation of the contract (Owen et al. 2013).

The appeal for a renegotiation of the contract involved an increase in the usage of the concept of “responsibility” in connection to scientific and technological progress (Grunwald 2011). For example, as early as 1984, Hans Jonas argued that the unprecedented impact of the current generation mediated through innovation and technology carries along with it an enormous responsibility to future generations (Grinbaum and Groves 2013). Following up on Jonas, a few decades later, von Schomberg posits that the failure of ethical theories in capturing ethical and social challenges of scientific and technological development calls for a new ethics of collective co-responsibility (Von Schomberg 2013). In this view the overall purpose of RRI then is to “effectively organise collective responsibility […] both for the right impacts and negative consequences of R&I” (Von Schomberg 2013, p. 60). Likewise, Fisher and Rip (2013, pp. 177–178) suggest that RRI involves introducing a new governance element in which R&I actors are to be held “co-responsible for taking societal embedding and potential impacts into account.” RRI then gives rise to the practical question of how responsibility can be embedded within R&I and moreover prompts “a re-evaluation of the concept of responsibility as a moral and philosophical social ascription” (Owen et al. 2013, p. 44).

RRI then is viewed as a continuation of, and next step in, the historical discourse on reflecting on research and innovation dating back decades or even centuries. In that discourse, a novel demand has come to the forefront urging for a change in outlook and seemingly large enough to justify terming it anew. This central demand states that due to fundamental changes in the nature of research and innovation, current theory and methodology for reflection no longer suffice. Technology is deeply ingrained in society. At the same time, the future consequences of novel technologies are often unpredictable while also being of a transformative nature. The choices made today in the use, research, and innovation of technology, therefore, are deeply influential toward future generations. The idea that accounting for and taking responsibility for these choices should be an important part of R&I practice gained support, over time culminating in RRI.

The Argument for RRI

In the literature on RRI, especially in the documents that propose an account, substantive reasons have been brought forward why RRI is necessary. These can be summarized as follows:
  1. 1.

    The need for R&I to contribute to attaining societal goals such as climate change and food security or the aging population (European Commission 2011; Grunwald 2011; Jacob et al. 2013; Owen et al. 2012; Sutcliffe 2011; Von Schomberg 2013)

  2. 2.

    The potentially transformative (Owen et al. 2013) and disruptive (European Commission 2011; Sutcliffe 2011) nature of the consequences of R&I for society

  3. 3.

    The inherent uncertainty that surrounds future consequences of R&I (Grunwald 2011; Owen et al. 2013; Stahl et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013), which is further compounded by:

  4. 4.

    The characteristics of innovation such as its complexity (Grunwald 2011; Von Schomberg 2013), high pace (Sutcliffe 2011; Stahl et al. 2013), seemingly unstoppable-ness (Sutcliffe 2011; Von Schomberg 2013), and the time lag between development and time when consequences are felt (van den Hoven 2013; Owen et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013)

  5. 5.

    The irresponsible nature of (parts of) extant R&I practices (Grunwald 2011; Jacob et al. 2013; Owen et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013)

  6. 6.

    The inadequacy of current approaches (Grunwald 2011; Owen et al. 2013; Stahl et al. 2013), regulation (European Commission 2011; Owen et al. 2013), the market (Jacob et al. 2013; Owen et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013), and extant governance and government (Owen et al. 2013; Stahl et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013)


Together, these reasons call for a novel approach to R&I governance that overcomes the inadequacies of the pre-existing approaches to governing R&I. The next subsection discusses in what way RRI differs from its predecessors in attaining socially desirable and ethically acceptable R&I outcomes and processes.

Novelty of RRI

From the start, the novelty of RRI, i.e., the defining characteristics that set it apart from its predecessors, has been an important aspect of the discourse. RRI’s critique of its predecessors and its aspiration to remedy their flaws were the direct reason for this. To this end, two types of novelty have been argued for by the literature.

In the first place, the novelty of RRI lies in its drawing together of the different theoretical notions, practical approaches, and methods that share a concern for ensuring that science, research, technology, and innovation have positive, socially acceptable, and desirable outcomes (Owen et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013). In order to integrate this wide range of approaches, methodologies, instruments, and theories, RRI has been portrayed as an umbrella term (Stahl et al. 2013; Von Schomberg 2013; Wickson and Carew 2014). Methodologies and instruments included are:
  1. 1.

    (Constructive) technology assessment

  2. 2.

    Risk assessment and other types of ethics or impact assessments

  3. 3.

    Futures and foresight studies

  4. 4.

    Ethical legal and social implications or aspects (ELSI/ELSA)

  5. 5.

    Science and technology studies (STS)

  6. 6.

    Public and stakeholder engagement

  7. 7.

    R&I policy


In the second place, the novelty of RRI lies in the thread that is suggested to bind all these different components together, namely, the concept of responsibility (Grunwald 2011; Fisher and Rip 2013; Grinbaum and Groves 2013; van den Hoven 2013; Jacob et al. 2013; Stilgoe et al. 2013). Responsibility is a venerable term with a long history of discussion in philosophy and jurisprudence. In recent decades the term has gained currency as a “significant new cultural master frame” (Strydom 1999) connected with risk, complexity, and uncertainty (Pellizzoni 2004; Grunwald 2011). In the context of business, for example, in relation to CSR and social accountability, it has been invoked as a viable alternative to the waning influence of the state pared to the amplification of corporate power (Pellizzoni 2004). Similarly, the concept of responsibility is used to address questions of the relationship between R&I and society, most recently in the discourse on RRI.

By explicitly linking R&I to responsibility, RRI suggests that actors across the innovation ecosystem have co-responsibility for considering the broader implications of R&I (Fisher and Rip 2013; Owen et al. 2013). This allows shifting the focus to open up new horizons on how to conduct R&I. This does not necessarily mean that RRI requires new approaches. Instead, the major novelty of RRI is the integration of existing approaches such as research ethics and social sciences in a novel way by shifting focus and placing new emphases (Grunwald 2011). In addition to enabling integration, the emphasis on responsibility also supports the embedding of existing approaches “in a day-to-day operational context” (Owen et al. 2013). Responsibility thus functions as a means to bridge the gap between theory and R&I practice that pre-existing reflexive fields such as ethics, STS, and TA encounter in their efforts to impact R&I.

Criticism of RRI

While the accounts of RRI generally display a positive outlook on the concept, the literature also produced more critical outlooks on (aspects of) RRI. Broadly speaking, criticisms either concern the practical applicability of RRI or issues on a theoretical/conceptual level. Ascribing and holding R&I actors socially responsible is problematic in practice due to:
  • The epistemic factors surrounding R&I, such as uncertainty and unpredictability (Blok and Lemmens 2015)

  • Power differences and dependencies, strategical behavior (de Hoop et al. 2016), unclear (de-)marcation of responsibilities (de Hoop et al. 2016), diverging and contrasting interests (de Hoop et al. 2016; Ribeiro et al. 2016), a lack of a shared meaning about RRI, and a general lack of knowledge about RRI (Hartley et al. 2016) of the actors involved

  • A lack of imagination about what RRI in practice may look like (Hartley et al. 2016.

  • Forfeiting an outlook on the commercialization phase of innovation, thereby leaving it open how RRI can be applied to business contexts (Lubberink et al. 2017.

On a conceptual level, RRI is being criticized for:
  • Reifying known (unresolved) problems of the existing approaches that it incorporates rather than avoiding them (Ribeiro et al. 2016.

  • Suffering from a lack of clarity of its dimensions and definitions (Burget et al. 2017.

  • Having too much interpretive flexibility due to its conceptual broadness and thereby rendering it meaningless (Wickson and Carew 2014; Hartley et al. 2016.

  • Failing to consider how RRI processes are imbued with politics (van Oudheusden 2014)

  • Infecting researchers with economic aims and ideologies (Zwart et al. 2014) by placing too much emphasis on economics

  • Having a bias toward the perspective of the Global North (Davis and Laas 2014; Macnaghten et al. 2014; Timmermans 2017)

  • Using a narrow and uncritical concept of innovation (Davis and Laas 2014; Blok and Lemmens 2015; Timmermans and Blok 2018), thereby leaving no room to improve/upgrade toward a more responsible concept of innovation

Critical discussions of the field are important as they indicate areas that need consideration if RRI is to make further progress toward meeting its objectives. An overarching concern that arises from the issues brought forward by the literature also emerges from the analysis of the four accounts, namely, the lack of a clear understanding of what RRI entails in concept and practice.

RRI and the SDGs

Based on the discussion thus far, a profound albeit largely implicit alignment emerges between RRI and the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). First and foremost, sustainability has been recognized in the RRI literature and policies as a central tenet of RRI (Timmermans 2017). For example, similar to the SDGs, especially SDG 8 decent work and economic growth, the outings by the EC on RRI bring forward the aim for sustainable economic growth that joins prosperity to a smart and green economy (e.g., Geoghegan-Quinn 2012; European Commission 2017). Also, in his definition of RRI, von Schomberg underscores the need for “sustainability […] of the innovation process and its marketable products” (Von Schomberg 2013, p. 63).

Second, by the literature, RRI is recognized as a strategy aimed at tackling the so-called grand challenges of our time such as global warming; tightening supplies of energy, water, and food; aging societies; public health; and pandemics (e.g., Owen et al. 2012; Stahl 2013; Von Schomberg 2013). These grand challenges, first articulated in the Lund Declaration in 2009, are in alignment with many of the SDGs, such as goal 3 good health and well-being for people, goal 7 affordable and clean energy, goal 12 responsible consumption and production, and goal 13 climate action.

These alignments between RRI and the SDGs have been confirmed and made explicit by two recent initiatives. In 2016, a conference on RRI (policy) was hosted by the EC where specific attention was placed on the linkage of RRI to sustainability and the SDGs (European Economic and Social Committee 2016). And, in 2017 Delft University of Technology piloted a research program on meeting the SDGs through responsible innovation and design for values (“The Sustainable Development Goals & Responsible Innovation” 2018). Furthermore, a recent article explored the ways in which RRI could support “not only the SDG3 (Good health and well-being), but also SDGs related to economic development and environmental sustainability” (Lehoux et al. 2018, p. 2).

At the same time, RRI also has been criticized (also see the Criticism of RRI section) for being primarily centered on the needs of the Global North (Macnaghten et al. 2014) and hence not attuned to those of the developing nations. To be better applicable to the Global South, RRI, therefore, has to be “‘responsible’ in ways that are not an immediate priority for those more developed nations in the North (and in particular the EU and USA), where the RI discourse has so far largely developed” (Macnaghten et al. 2014, p. 2).



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Military SciencesNetherlands Defense Academy (NLDA)BredaThe Netherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Edurne A. Inigo
    • 1
  1. 1.Business Management & Organization, Social Sciences GroupWageningen University and ResearchWageningenThe Netherlands