Responsible Innovator Lecture Series: Questioning Responsibility

Welcome to Responsible Innovator Lecture Series with Professor Andy Stirling!

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20 Oct 2022 | 5 - 6pm

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Questioning Responsibility: uncertainty, participation, and sustainability in the governance of emerging innovation

Steep gradients of power and privilege drive turbulent ebbs and flows in the politics of research and innovation. Contrasting idioms around ‘sustainable development’, ‘ethical research’, ‘smart solutions’, ‘clean technology’, ‘inclusive engagement’, ‘precautionary regulation’ and ‘responsible innovation’ vie for attention and traction. Variously associated with competing disciplines, cultures and institutional interests across different policy ‘markets’, each follows others in disparate ways, enjoying brief episodes of ‘mainstream’ status in the language and practice of particular settings.

Despite many significant differences, all these ostensibly divergent idioms share a crucial trait in common. Each provides an arena within which incumbent and subaltern interests contend to shape onward developments. By modulating processes of churn, privilege can be leveraged to ratchet contingent gains or neutralise losses. As a result, a series of inconvenient contradictions are concealed in ways that help justify the most powerfully favoured orientations for change. These cliental pressures are intensified by policy patronage and academic incentives for ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’.

Resulting rhetorics (or body-language) of supposedly singular definitively ‘scientific’, ‘legitimate’ and/or ‘responsible’ orientations for policy are refuted by persistently intractable ambiguities, uncertainties and ignorance. The reality in research and innovation remains one of irreducibly open-ended scope for a plurality of equally conditionally-valid political choices. Yet for brief periods until their currency becomes tarnished, the concealment of these actualities by this bewildering succession of vocabularies and methods, supports mainstream incumbent directions for research and innovation in specific fields as if they were uniquely technically-resolved, expert-accredited or “evidence based”, “pro innovation” “ways forward” for a “sound scientific” “public good”. If discourses and practices around ‘responsible research and innovation’ are to live up both to the name and to the widely aspired progressive function, then they must openly and directly challenge (rather than evade) these dynamics of power and privilege. When on a steep gradient, balance is maintained by bias. Rather than seeking to supersede or mediate other idioms, ways must be found to embed the legal and institutional traction gained by rare previous episodes of precious critical influence.

For instance, multiple national and international legal instruments around the ‘precautionary principle’ and ‘participatory deliberation’ offer essential load-bearing resources in this continuing struggle. Yet if ‘responsibility’ is represented as different from (rather than subsuming of) these idioms, then it will simply provide a pretext to side-line these gains and so erode progress made in earlier windows of opportunity. Across diverse fields like artificial intelligence, zero-carbon energy, sustainable agriculture, resource management and public health, the implications could hardly be more practical or profound.


Andy Stirling is Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, where he co-directed the ‘STEPS Centre’ for sixteen years. Working on issues of power, uncertainty and diversity in science and technology (especially around energy and biotech), he has served on a number of UK, EU and wider governmental advisory committees including (presently) as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).



The Responsible Innovator Lecture Series is organized by ANU Responsible Innovation Lab. The series is designed to initiate new conversation around the responsibility of innovators as they imagine, design, build and deploy new technologies. Distinguished innovators and academics from around the world share lessons from their own projects helping engineers and scientists understand the complexities around new technologies. To see the list of speakers in 2022 and watch the recording of the previous events, please visit the RI-Lab website at


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