Responsible Innovation: A Pilot Study with the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Significant time lags between the development of novel innovations (e.g., nanotechnologies), understanding of their wider impacts, and subsequent governance (e.g., regulation) have led to repeated calls for more anticipatory and adaptive approaches that promote the responsible emergence of new technologies in democratic societies. A key challenge is implementation in a pragmatic way. Results are presented of a study with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the largest public funder of basic innovation research in the United Kingdom who, for the first time, asked applicants to submit a risk register identifying the wider potential impacts and associated risks (environment, health, societal, and ethical) of their proposed research. This focused on nanoscience for carbon capture and utilization. Risk registers were completed conservatively, with most identified impacts concerning researchers’ health associated with nanoparticle synthesis, handling, and prototype device fabrication, i.e., risks that could be identified and managed with a reasonable level of certainty. Few wider environmental impacts and no future impacts on society were identified, reflecting the often uncertain and unpredictable nature of innovation. However, some applicants addressed this by including investigators with expertise beyond engineering and nanosciences supporting integrated activities that included life cycle and real-time technology assessment, which in some cases were also framed by stakeholder and/or public engagement. Proposals underpinned by a strong commitment to responsible science and innovation promoted continuous reflexivity, embedding a suite of multidisciplinary approaches around the innovation research core to support decisions modulating the trajectory of their innovation research in real-time.