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Responsible innovation ‘must be a rigorous and robust process’

Image: Jasmin Merdan, via Getty images

Australian agency CSIRO says “guardrails” are needed in developing contentious technologies such as wind farms

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has warned that “responsible innovation” must go beyond principles or guidelines and be a rigorous, robust and repeatable scientific process.

In a report published on 17 April, CSIRO says it has developed two “innovative science frontiers” to inform its approach to delivering socially responsible science and technology. They are: responsible prediction; and social and ethical risk management.

These factors will help the organisation decide what technologies should be developed and what should be left on the shelf, it says, and they will help to gain public trust. They are being applied to research into artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, healthcare, manufacturing and climate change solutions.

CSIRO gives the example of offshore wind farms, saying it is “testing new methodologies for predicting social conflict” around such potentially contentious technologies. Wind farm proposals “are increasingly being contested by local communities, as well as national and international advocacy groups”, it says. It is developing tools to provide a “virtual world” in which to test such proposals.

Other research is investigating the “yuck factor” in how people respond to new food technologies such as 3D-printed food and plant-based meats.

Public trust

Researchers “can’t afford not to” work responsibly, CSIRO says.

“If future science and technology is developed outside the guardrails of responsible innovation, the risks are threefold,” it says. First, a “tick box” approach to social and ethical issues will fail to capture the needs and values of the public; second, there will be missed opportunities to realise meaningful outcomes, and social inequalities may be exacerbated; and third, there could be a breakdown in public trust.

The report came from the agency’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform, which has worked across CSIRO’s research for the past five years to identify “the social and ethical risks and opportunities of future science and technology”.