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By Mary O'Callaghan 11 October 2019 3 min read

Precision health, robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology—with the advent of so many new and disruptive technologies in Australia’s research landscape, we are clearly now in a new and exciting phase of science and innovation, one where the potential benefits to society are immense.

And, as we saw last year when a Chinese scientist edited the genes of twin babies ‘Lulu and Nana’ to become resistant to the HIV virus carried by their father, both the scientific community and the general public expect ethical discussions to be had, and ethical decisions to be made, before such potentially disruptive technology is deployed.

With great power comes great responsibility

While such practices would never be allowed in Australia, we still want to make sure we’re doing everything we can—in our processes and our decision-making— to ensure we bring society along with us as our technological capability continues to grow.

In April 2019, a team of CSIRO researchers led by Dr Justine Lacey surveyed 171 people working within Australia’s research and innovation system (mainly researchers, scientists, academics, and PhD students, but also science and research managers and policy managers), to understand their perspectives on the current state of the science-society relationship, and what they see as priority areas for change.

The survey covered three themes:

  • the transparency and openness of the relationship between science and Australian society
  • the nature of the dialogue between science and society – is it inclusive, timely and meaningful enough?
  • ethical scientific practice – are current policies and procedures adequate?

Science accessibility, funding processes, ethical practice

The survey results, which are documented in the report ‘The science-society relationship in Australia: toward responsible innovation’, published this month, highlight that the science and research community is really interested in the Australian public’s relationship with science; and feel they hold a responsibility for the relationship.

Their candid responses reveal that they see science as being not accessible enough to the public, and they would like scientists and researchers to communicate with the public more effectively. Yet, the generally held belief is that meaningful dialogue between scientists and the public is not well resourced, or indeed rewarded, by science and research institutions.

The responses also indicate that they perceived funding decisions as neither particularly open nor transparent. Overall, participants said they would like greater transparency on what the research is for, who it benefits, and who may be (further) marginalised as a result.

They strongly supported ethical principles and procedures, not only for scientists but for funding bodies and science delivery agencies as well. And, not just for risky, animal- or human-focused projects, but for all research projects.

Responsible Innovation: what does it mean to Australians?

In late 2017, CSIRO established a new research program in responsible innovation for the nation. This initial $5.75 million, five-year investment recognises that the pace of change of emerging science and technology is creating complex issues for societies and their decision-makers, and dedicated research is required to ensure socially responsible science and technology is designed and delivered for all Australians.

“Science gives us knowledge about the world, but it doesn’t tell us how we should use that knowledge in the world,” says Dr Lacey. “Responsible innovation is about asking Australians what type of future we want to create with the potential afforded by science and technology, and how are we going to achieve that in the most socially responsible way. But we need to examine what responsible innovation means in practice before we can operationalise it in Australia.”

CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform is examining:

  • how to account for and manage the risks posed by emerging technologies
  • the nature of Australians’ trust in emerging technologies
  • how effective our institutions are at seizing the opportunities presented by emerging technologies and managing their risks.

According to Dr Lacey, the survey has revealed important areas that need to be explored. These include:

  • the nature of ‘meaningful dialogue’ between science and society
  • the role of science outreach
  • institutional incentives for scientists to engage with the public
  • funding transparency
  • open access to data and research.

CSIRO is already using gene editing in areas such as agriculture and biosecurity as well as developing underlying chemical, biological and bioinformatics technologies that support the safe use of this technology. So for CSIRO, exploring the areas raised in the survey means, for example, working closely with the Transformational Bioinformatics Group to improve science outreach to build understanding and trust for the technologies they create.

So this research is only the beginning of a longer conversation about what responsible innovation means to Australians, and how we might go about ensuring that we realise the ethical and responsible pursuit of science and innovation.

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