Responsible innovation: A primer for policymakers

Technical change is advancing at a breakneck speed while the institutions that govern innovative activity slog forward trying to keep pace. The lag has created a need for reform in the governance of innovation. Reformers who focus primarily on the social benefits of innovation propose to unmoor the innovative forces of the market. Conversely, those who deal mostly with innovation’s social costs wish to constrain it by introducing regulations in advance of technological developments. In this paper, Walter Valdivia and David Guston argue for a different approach to reform the governance of innovation that they call “Responsible Innovation” because it seeks to imbue in the actors of the innovation system a more robust sense of individual and collective responsibility.

Responsible innovation appreciates the power of free markets in organizing innovation and realizing social expectations but is self-conscious about the social costs that markets do not internalize. At the same time, the actions it recommends do not seek to slow down innovation because they do not constrain the set of options for researchers and businesses, they expand it. Responsible innovation is not a doctrine of regulation and much less an instantiation of the precautionary principle. Innovation and society can evolve down several paths and the path forward is to some extent open to collective choice. The aim of a responsible governance of innovation is to make that choice more consonant with democratic principles.

Valdivia and Guston illustrate how responsible innovation can be implemented with three practical initiatives: 

  1. Industry: Incorporating values and motivations to innovation decisions that go beyond the profit motive could help industry take on a long-view of those decisions and better manage its own costs associated with liability and regulation, while reducing the social cost of negative externalities. Consequently, responsible innovation should be an integral part of corporate social responsibility, considering that the latter has already become part of the language of business, from the classroom to the board room, and that is effectively shaping, in some quarters, corporate policies and decisions.
  2. Universities and National Laboratories: Centers for Responsible Innovation, fashioned after the institutional reform of Internal Review Boards to protect human subjects in research and the Offices of Technology Transfer created to commercialize academic research, could organize existing responsible innovation efforts at university and laboratory campuses. These Centers would formalize the consideration of impacts of research proposals on legal and regulatory frameworks, economic opportunity and inequality, sustainable development and the environment, as well as ethical questions beyond the integrity of research subjects.
  3. Federal Government: Federal policy should improve its protections and support of scientific research while providing mechanisms of public accountability for research funding agencies and their contractors. Demanding a return on investment for every research grant is a misguided approach that devalues research and undermines trust between Congress and the scientific community. At the same time, scientific institutions and their advocates should improve public engagement and demonstrate their willingness and ability to be responsive to societal concerns and expectations about the public research agenda. Second, if scientific research is a public good, by definition, markets are not effective commercializing it. New mechanisms to develop practical applications from federal research with little market appeal should be introduced to counterbalance the emphasis the current technology transfer system places on research ready for the market. Third, federal innovation policy needs to be better coordinated with other federal policy, including tax, industrial, and trade policy as well as regulatory regimes. It should also improve coordination with initiatives at the local and state level to improve the outcomes of innovation for each region, state, and metro area.