AsSIST-UK coordinates training in Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

The Engineering and Physical Science Research Councils (and UKRI more generally) recently required that students at their Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) receive research training in the area of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). AsSIST-UK coordinated a Workshop in collaboration with Jack Stilgoe (UCL). Below is a brief report of the Workshop.

 The meeting brought colleagues involved in delivering research training and supporting RRI in UKRI/EPSRC CDTs across 12 Higher Education Institutes: Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter, Kings College London, Imperial College, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, UCL. Participants shared a wide range of experiences and highlighted key institutional and pedagogic challenges. Though it is not feasible to capture all aspects some key messages emerged. 

The arrangements for delivering RRI varied greatly between institutions. Colleagues were generally promoting concerted provision across CDTs and postgraduate programmes to achieve economies of scale and networking benefits. Some CDTs had requested bespoke provision shaped around their substantive topics and broader framings. These activities cut across HEI’s largely discipline-based resource management structures. Their dispersal across different schools and faculties could pose challenges in securing resource streams needed to create new posts/sustain delivery.

Though the institutions represented were able to draw on expertise within their own institutions, it was noted that some organisations buy-in external RRI and related training. CDT students have heavy science and engineering workloads and may be anxious about being invited to engage with social science dimensions and approaches. They may feel overwhelmed and thus unwilling to do non-credit bearing work.

The experience of those working in the field of Synthetic Biology is that RRI may best emerge through bottom-up establishment of constructive relationships with students and their supervisors rather than making it a mandatory part of research training. Formal research training is often provided at the outset when its relevance would become more salient later in the PhD journey as students contemplate the application of their research and engaging with external players users/industrial partners/wider publics (e.g. in co-design activities). This was addressed as students developed RRI plans in the course of their projects in years 2-4. RRI was delivered through a range of methods including formal lecture based courses and through small group work (e.g. around values in design and co-design). It would be useful to consider teaching methods and also intended learning outcomes.

RRI scholars are keen to go beyond simply offering service teaching and to undertake somekinds of action research. This might seek to establish whether RRI activities are making a difference in terms of the socialisation of science and engineering (e.g. attitudes and orientation of students and supervisors). A central feature of this community is an emphasis on reflective practice and many colleagues have been actively considering the conflicts and contradictions that may accompany these efforts. Thus scholars in the field are concerned to avoid being cast into a particular role (e.g. of running ELSI assessment or public engagement exercises). This may be facilitated by creative engagements between specialists in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, with cognate groups in Law, Ethics, Business Schools and also more widely – for example the creative engagements with artists (e.g. the Synthetic Aesthetics project with synthetic biologists) – let alone technical specialists in STEM subjects.

Future meetings are planned with a view to establishing a network devoted to this issue. Please do contact Robin Williams, (R.Williams@ed.ac.uk), if you are interested in joining this initiative.