The Center for Digital Life Norway (DLN) is a national biotechnology center with the aim to foster transdisciplinary research across biotechnology, mathematics, informatics, and physics. DLN is expected to become a 'lighthouse' that creates economic, social and environmental value for Norway.
To strengthen DLN's work on "Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)", the Research Council of Norway funded the concomitant research project 'Res publica. Responsibility, practice, and the public good.' The project asks what responsibility can mean in and to the practices of a biotechnology center in a dynamic socio-political governance context.
Our research elicits tensions among various valuation practices, for example between demands for scientific publication and commercialization. Scientists need to navigate contradictory demands. Their imaginations of their work practice do not necessarily overlap with science policies' imaginations of research practice and university structures. Therefore, scientists try to accommodate rather than enact ELSA and RRI. They employ coping strategies of 'following rules', 'dismissing', and 'contesting through talking the talk'. Thus, RRI fails to enter as a solution to existing problems. Rather, scientists experience RRI as yet another problem. Consequently, research politics should not focus only on encouraging scientists to adopt responsible behaviors, but policies need to create possible conditions for new practices. Maybe, basic science projects are also not the right departure point for radically changing how science can be for better benefit to society.
Our research contributes to international RRI scholarship. We show that the concept 'for the benefit of society', which is a central concept in RRI, is problematic. How boundaries to society are drawn, and what public good means in practice is highly contested. Apart from that, we developed and published on an RRI course for biotechnology PhD students that we conducted for the DLN Research School.
Based on this recognition, we attempt to drive RRI research further by addressing RRI through the concept of 'res publica'. This means that we address the question of what affairs within a research center like DLN that are or should be public affairs. We use the concept res publica to account for the double nature of private and public matters that we want to explore in DLN's practices. Does an issue, for example, concern an individual (a scientist or consumer) or is it something collectives (a government or a group of citizens) ought to address? We elicit the topics bioeconomy, RRI infrastructures, bioprospecting, and technoscientific farmed salmon.
The research project uses both traditional qualitative methods, such as interviews, and action research methods. As for the latter, we conducted a 'search conference' for the DLN center.
This project represents a strengthening and extension of the research and work to establish a novel platform for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in the Center for Digital Life Norway (DLN). DNL was established in February 2016 and aims at creating a strong and coherent national platform for transdisciplinary and digitalized biotechnology. All activities within DLN are supposed to be underpinned by the principle and practice of RRI.
This research project aims to improve RRI activities across DLN and its research projects by addressing RRI in terms of res publica (i.e. common good and public concerns) and by situating RRI also in the socio-political-economic context pertinent to DLN. With a departure point in DLN, we investigate how RRI can be integrated in three domains of practices: 1) scientific practices, mediation and evaluation, 2) innovation practices, and 3) policy and institutional practices.
Based on previous research and on experiences from working with DLN, we know that translating RRI into appropriate practices is more demanding than anticipated in mainstream RRI scholarship and policies. In action research, we will together with DLN's scientists elaborate how RRI can be shaped and implemented under the conditions they work in and look for alternative designs for distributing collective responsibilities.
The project will be a significant contribution to international Research on RRI in three ways. First, it takes RRI theory further by introducing practice theory as an approach to study the formation of public concerns as well as to identify the kind of situations where RRI resonates with ongoing research practices. This may make RRI easier to implement. Second, the use of a practice perspective extends the scope of potential RRI interventions to become multi-sited, going beyond academia. Third, our research will introduce action research methods to engage DLN and related actors in a learning process.