Making sense of “responsible research and innovation” in Neuro-Enhancement

NERRI means Neuro-Enhancement: Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). But are we really aware of what RRI means? Helge Torgersen tries to give a complete picture of the meaning of this term.

The acronym NERRI consists of two parts: Neuro-Enhancement (NE) means artificially increasing the performance of our brain and represents a technological aim. Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) stands for a newly launched European policy paradigm to guide research and innovation.

Both terms are still a bit vague. “Neuro-Enhancement” suffers from an unclear distinction from traditional forms of neuro-stimulation as well as from therapeutical interventions. “RRI” remains a political boundary object: its meaning is unclear, but everybody talks about it and nobody can object to it.

The fog may lift over time, but we cannot wait. We need to develop an understanding because both terms already serve to set the agenda, respectively. Here I will try to explore what RRI could mean in the context of NE.

Many articles have tried to fathom what RRI means for particular fields of science and technology[1]. Typically, RRI is said to lift “the focus from preventing risks and other potential negative implications, and instead is concerned with institutions and practices involved in the inclusive steering of science and technology towards socially desirable outcomes.”

The explanation brings up more questions than it answers: can science and technology be deliberately steered? How and by whom? What does “inclusive” mean, and what is a socially desirable outcome? What about the less desired side effects and unavoidable conflicts of interest? Some of these questions have a long tradition of debate already.

The European Commission, who propagates the concept, seems to prefer a pragmatic view: accordingly[2], RRI has five measurable core dimensions, namely citizens’ engagement, science literacy, gender equality, open access to research and knowledge, governance and ethics. Valuable aims indeed, but it is hard to believe that their indicator-based monitoring and member state ranking is enough to ensure “socially desirable outcomes”.

Let’s ask René von Schomberg, a founding father of RRI[3]. In a recent conference keynote[4] he takes the view that RRI denotes a “strategy of stakeholders to become mutually responsive to each other” and that we need “broader foresight and impact assessment for new technologies beyond their anticipated market benefits and risks.” The second sentence rings a bell. Is RRI a means to circumvent established market mechanisms? Hardly – it is improbable that the Commission would adopt a principle contradicting contemporary mainstream understandings of innovation.

Economic innovation is not the core concern here, though: “Social benefits need to take into account widely shared public values”, which “implies a paradigm shift in innovation policy … from an emphasis on key technologies towards issue and mission oriented policies.” This sounds like co-construction rather than technology-driven innovation. Looking beyond sheer technology would mean giving up the restricted focus on risks and benefits, though.

That sounds more attractive, but what issues should be addressed? Von Schomberg says research and innovation need to become more responsive to the “Grand Challenges” like climate change, streams of migration or an ageing society.

OK, I hear researchers sigh, let’s tackle identifiable aims if that is what the Commission wants. But isn’t this something they have been stipulating for decades? Why on earth do they need a policy principle now?

The answer may lie in some stakeholders’ unease over emphasizing economic aims in research funding too much: accordingly, the focus on key enabling technologies rendered competitiveness an end in itself. For RRI, in contrast, competition is a means, and the end is tackling Grand Challenges. No less than a policy principle may rank high enough to bring this into the heads of decision makers.

This does not solve the problem of what a social benefit is even if it relates to a Grand Challenge. Reference is made to “widely shared public values”, but that helps little if we do not know them or cannot prioritize them in case of conflict. Usually, members of the public do not happily display their values, and if so, then in protest – to the dismay of policy makers.

However, if people concretely engage in a particular issue, related values may come to the fore. This is why many see a virtue in public participation: mobilize the public in a suitable procedure to openly say what they think (in response to expert input) and you will know their concerns. The outcomes of such events are thought to influence the research agenda through the procedure itself: RRI, we heard, is a “strategy of stakeholders to become mutually responsive.”

In other words, the message is to bring stakeholders together and to let them deliberate the issue in the light of widely shared public values. Then they are supposed to bring the lessons learned to their daily practice, and members of the public to spread them among their friends. Everyone gains, irrespective of conflicts of interest, differences in value prioritization and knowledge gaps.

That is in theory. In practice, for example for Neuro-Enhancement, this is not so easy. Today, people are drinking coffee or taking fairly old drugs to keep awake or concentrate. Proponents of NE promise that this only gives you a faint idea of what to come. The field thus mostly consists of expectations.

A sober analysis for the German Parliament[5] puts this into perspective. Accordingly, industry invests little in neuropharmacology. Alternative methods such as magnetic brain stimulation are still in their infancy. Basic research into brain connectivity is just beginning. Hence, NE is an idea rooted in long-standing societal practices and preferences rather than in robust scientific-medical insights.

If this is so, what should be debated then – contemporary drug misuse (an old story), societal trends towards performing better (a debate not to be confined) or weird experts’ dreams of transhumanism (a hype of little relevance in Europe)? A bit of everything, obviously, plus a number of other issues that may pop up.

This ambiguity carries the risk that mobilization becomes an end in itself The organizers might be content if many people had a good time, discussed interesting issues and went home happily, having contributed to a “public debate”. Was that all?

Somehow one gets the feeling that this would fall short of the ideas of RRI. The scenario provides a hint at what the “extra” with RRI could be without defining it: the feeling for the need to direct scarce resources to issues concerning people more than others. The fear that if we do not back particular issues they will get neglected. The insight that value-laden issues are important even if they cannot be monetarized. In short: the idea that innovation is too important to leave it to the technologists and the market alone.

Hence, to make RRI “live” we need to strive for more than just nice events. We will have to search for apt formats of participation, be sensitive for various issue framings, relate to existing societal debates and struggle for a reasonable and sustainable innovation policy. Whether it will resonate with policy makers is another issue, but at least we should give it a try.



[1] For synthetic biology, for example, see Conor M. W. Douglas and Dirk Stemerding (2013), Governing synthetic biology for global health through responsible research and innovation. Syst Synth Biol 7:139–150. http://www.academia.edu/4232215/Governing_synthetic_biology_for_global_health_through_responsible_research_and_innovation

[2] Petra Ahrweiler in a recent conference contribution, http://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/veranstaltungen/konferenzen-workshops/konferenzarchiv/nta6-ta14-2014/abstracts#p2v1

[3] see http://Renevonschomberg.wordpress.com

[4] http://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/veranstaltungen/konferenzen-workshops/konferenzarchiv/nta6-ta14-2014/abstracts#p2v1

[5] Arnolds Sauter and Katrin Gerlinger (2011), Pharmakologische Interventionen zur Leistungssteigerung als gesellschaftliche Herausforderung, TAB-Arbeitsbericht Nr. 143, Berlin, https://www.tab-beim-bundestag.de/de/publikationen/berichte/ab143.html