By Sujatha Raman, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University of Nottingham
Can research be responsive to public needs and priorities? ‘Impact’ is a core principle for Research Councils and, in that sense, one might argue that funded research is already sensitive to public need. However, organisations such as Sciencewise and leading academics and practitioners in science policy have tried to open up a new conversation on how needs, priorities and impacts are defined in the first place, and how the public might contribute to these discussions. This challenge has been formulated in various ways: doing ‘science for the people’, engaging in a slow race in innovation, building research regimes based on collective experimentation rather than only on technological promises for which public acceptance is subsequently sought. David Edgerton reminds us that a memorable political speech which came to be known for its grand invocation of the white heat of technological revolution was replete with references to harnessing science to fulfil social needs. Harold Wilson spoke of a future in which more effort would be devoted to researching the small(er) things – the means to produce, say, the “simple tractors and ploughs” that people in vast parts of the world needed rather than just the “bigger and better washing-machines”.
Today, we might feel that researching better washing machines is no bad thing if this meant machines that required less water or energy. We might also acknowledge that even projects that seem to be obviously needs-oriented – such as those aiming to improve cookstoves for the energy-poor – haven’t always paid attention to what people actually define as their needs and priorities. Perhaps doing responsive research isn’t only about developing technologies – it could involve producing knowledge that publics value for a variety of reasons. But these are issues that require more discussion. There’s also the opportunity to learn from established networks already doing responsive research – for example, ‘science shops’ which aim to produce knowledge in response to civil society’s needs for expertise. Other models such as crowdfunding of research are also gaining some traction.
Starting January next year, I’ll be launching a project supported by Sciencewise on the subject of responsive research, an idea that I find compelling but which has many strands and which raises lots of questions – and, no doubt, disagreements amongst those interested in science policy. It seems to me that while the idea of responsive research comes up frequently in discussions around responsible innovation and upstream engagement, it tends to get side-lined under the imperative to focus on specific technologies that are already on the table. Those debates we’re seeing at the moment on geo-engineering or nanotechnology are clearly vital, but I would like to create a complementary, dedicated space for the question that cuts across many different cases of research. My recent collaborations with Mike Clifford in the Engineering faculty at Nottingham, have made me aware of how questions of responsiveness and who determines needs and priorities come up in interesting ways around mundane technologies (for example, in discussions on what inclusive innovation means) as well as the emerging high-tech ones. I’m happy to say that Mike will be a partner in this Sciencewise project.
We plan to hold a Webinar and publish a series of blogs (some invited, others that we’ll write) over the course of January-March 2014. In December of this year, I will officially launch the project with a short piece setting out various questions for discussion that we have in mind. I also plan to periodically summarise the main threads of commentary for blog posts and to produce a final briefing on the debate for policy makers, so please leave your comments below! I hope that colleagues working on the various related threads that I’ve signposted above will contribute as well as others who have things to say about responsive research.