A green chemist’s interest in responsible research and innovation

In the past few months, I have been involved in a project on responsible research and innovation (RRI). What is RRI? Well, it’s concerned with the “nature and trajectory of new technologies and fields of enquiry” and asks at a fundamental level what research can do for society and who gets to make those decisions. These questions have been formulated into a framework (a freely accessible version is available at the EPSRC website) which obliges researchers to be anticipatory, reflective, inclusive and responsive about their research. RRI is already on the agenda of policy-makers and funders in the UK and the European Union, which means researchers “on the ground” need to start considering the implications it has for their work.

When I was asked to be involved in a project on RRI, I had only read a little about the topic and my understanding was hazy. (I won’t go into more details about the research project I am involved but a summary is available here).  As readers of my blog will be aware, I have a background in “green chemistry” and I immediately felt there were some similarities between the two philosophies.

RRI takes a holistic approach, asking researchers to anticipate the potential impacts of a new technology or innovation and to reflect upon their motivations. This was something I immediately recognised. Green chemistry has been called chemistry that is “benign by design”, and anticipating potential risks or problems should start before the first experiment. Studying green chemistry certainly gave me the tools to consider some of the wider implications of the research I was carrying out, but can it go further?

Green chemistry is narrower in its scope than RRI, unsurprisingly focusing on the chemical industry only. It was developed by chemists themselves to respond to the problems they perceived to exist within their own field (whereas RRI has grown out of the social science discipline “science and technology studies”). Like many fields of sustainability, green chemistry seeks to balance the often conflicting demands of the environment, society and economics.  Who represents these three groupings in green chemistry is where adopting an RRI philosophy could have its biggest influence on the field.

One of the key drivers for RRI is a desire to engage publics with scientific decision making as early as possible in the emergence of a new technical field. The promise of RRI is that by doing so, it will lead to more socially desirable outcomes and by allowing the public to shape the direction of research it will prevent downstream controversies and opposition. In contrast, green chemistry is focused on technical development and the input of the public remains limited, despite intentions to benefit society as a whole. This attitude is reflected in green chemistry’s twelve guiding principles and the limited range of stakeholders engaged (industry, regulators, policy-makers). This is not to say that green chemistry is ignorant of public attitudes; after all, it emerged as a response to the concerns of the environmental movement. However, the types of engagement and inclusiveness expected by RRI are outside the scope of the green chemistry movement. This needn’t be the case- sustainability places responsibility on everyone, from researchers to the public “end-users”. Green chemists can’t assume that it is only they alone who can assume the role of responsible guardians.

This situation might be about to change. Green chemistry is increasingly coming into contact with research fields where conflicts and controversies exist, e.g. the use of synthetic biology/genetic modification of organisms to synthesise chemicals, 3D printing, nanotechnology and carbon capture and storage. Funders such as the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme are already demanding that RRI approaches are embedded into research areas like synthetic biology and nanotechnology. As world-leading chemistry professor Peter Wassercheid proclaimed in 2013, green chemists must broaden their frame of reference and not just limit their influence to the traditional chemical industries.

There are already attempts to engage green chemistry with a broader range of disciplines and stakeholders. One of the best examples I have heard about was the Green Product Design Network at the University of Oregon, which integrated green chemistry teaching into courses on architectural design, business and journalism. Where exposure to different kinds of thinking is reciprocated between chemists and other students, the exchange of ideas built new problem solving tools. With the scheme being extended to local business, community and policy leaders, it is this type of approach that can allow green chemistry to expand its narrow industrial-scientific focus.

The new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham will provide an interesting opportunity to see if RRI and green chemistry do indeed complement each other. Graduate students enrolled in the CDT will take a broad range of taught courses alongside their research, including on RRI. As RRI goes deeper and broader than green chemistry, young green chemists will have to consider the wider social and political issues related to their work, not just how to transfer into the commercial sphere. They will need to think about engaging with and listening to new stakeholders, proactively seeking other viewpoints and bring them into the process of technology development and innovation.

The dichotomy of chemistry is that while it provides the materials basis for our modern lifestyle, it will forever be associated with acute risks to the environment and people’s health. We chemists often bemoan the the public perception of our discipline, but to avoid the controversies of the past we must try to anticipate the outcomes of our work and continually reflect on why we are doing what we are doing. Green chemistry can and will improve the chemical industry, but in my opinion there is still a lot more to be done. Adopting some of RRI’s framework might be a good place to start.

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