Greenpeace response to our Responsible Research & Innovation report

We hosted a meeting last week for Investors, convened by UKSIF and hosted by Legal and General Investment Management, to discuss the subject of Responsible Innovation and explore their responses which are outlined here on a previous blog.

We also invited David Santillo from Greenpeace to speak to the group.  David is a senior scientist at the Greenpeace Laboratories based at the University of Exeter, and is their lead on matters of emerging technologies.  He reviewed the recent paper that I had written for the European Commission on Responsible Research and Innovation (available here and here on EC site) and responded to it specifically.  He explained that the report was a very good summary of the issues, but had some concerns as outlined below.   It helps to read the paper first but is not at all essential.


David Santillo, Greenpeace

1    Do not assume that technology innovation is the inevitable solution

While innovation may often be becoming complex, disruptive and global in nature, this is not always the case, or at least needn’t be.  It is vital not to assume that the best or necessary innovations are inevitably highly technical in nature.  Systemic, low tech or other changes must be considered alongside, as equal, to those potentially more disruptive or uncertain technological solutions.

2    Prioritise consideration of irreversible impacts

Public understanding of the concept of risk is perhaps greater than is generally acknowledged, and the risks often of greatest concern are those involving potentially irreversible impacts.  How are governments, companies and scientists considering the potential impact of these new technologies in the round and in particular the likelihood of irreversible impacts on humans or the environment?

3    Consultation without feedback sustains mistrust.

If public engagement is seen primarily as a strategy to build knowledge and confidence in a new technology, in order to ‘smooth the innovation pathway’, this is unlikely to build broad public acceptance and trust.  Engagement must be entered into with a genuine interest in hearing public views and, as far as possible, resolving legitimate concerns.  Consultation without feedback sustains mistrust.  Some level of distrust will always persist, but the best response is always to be honest and transparent about how decisions have been made and on what assumptions they are based.

4    Mandatory measures, such as reporting, may be beneficial not destabilising

Over-reliance (whether perceived or actual) on voluntary reporting and compliance schemes also contributes to lack of public confidence.  Mandatory reporting for, for example, use of nanomaterials in consumer goods may ultimately be beneficial to manufacturers and retailers as well as to the public.

5    Innovation must be for the good of society, not just for the economy and commercial gain

There remains an urgent need for the development of a more healthy relationship between governments and citizens.  Exploring existing language, such as that enshrined in the European Treaty, for elements of such a contract would be a welcome start.  Citizens must be able to feel confident that their governments are supporting innovation for the good of society and environment rather than primarily for economic gain to the advantage of major corporations.

6    Don’t confuse customer focus groups with open source  innovation

Corporate engagement with consumers in order to understand perceptions of products and to design future products which are sympathetic to consumer demand is certainly laudable, but should not be conflated with open source models of innovation and development as the motivations and spread of benefits are ultimately different.

7    A richer understanding of expertise needed

Confusion in public understanding of the costs and benefits of specific innovations may be exacerbated by disagreement between ‘experts’, as science has so often been presented as definitive and absolute.  Overuse of the term ‘expert’ may in itself be part of the problem.  Deliberations and consultations must be able to acknowledge and take account of dissenting and minority views.

8    Education in critical thinking essential from a young age

In efforts to equip the public with the ability to make critical and informed evaluations and judgments regarding research and innovation, education in science, technology, engineering, maths and critical thinking is key, starting at early primary level.

9   An evidence-based approach to precaution

Precaution must be seen as a science-based approach to decision-making, not an arbitrary one driven primarily by fear and opposition to innovation.  Precaution recognises the central importance of scientific enquiry, evidence and inference in evaluating research and innovation but does so with greater humility and acknowledgment for uncertainties, indeterminacies and unknowns.

10    Global governance regimes are possible and essential

In relation to proposed research and innovations involving open field testing or application, the prior establishment of transparent and effective governance regimes is vital.  Where such activities are proposed to take place in locations and at a scale at which transboundary impacts are possible (e.g. geoengineering research), such governance regimes must be global in nature.  Although this may seem an unachievable ideal, there are already precedents for rapid (2-3 year) development of such governance mechanisms in relation to ocean fertilisation with the London Protocol and its recent updates


4 Responses to “Greenpeace response to our Responsible Research & Innovation report”

  1. Simon says:

    I think that is an excellent and very well structured response, and if we take a ‘high chunk’ / low detail view of David’s response we get an important and hugely instructive outline for both industry and government. This to do list would go a long way, not just with Nano, but other technologies too.

    Well done Hilary for inspiring the debate.

  2. Thanks Simon, I agree. We are looking at Responsible Technology Innovation in the round, not just nano as that became clear to us too. We are also considering how to adapt the Responsible Nano Code to incorporate the new thinking of people like David and evolve that process for all emerging tech/tech innovation, so your comment is motivating!

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