What quality standards for peer review related to responsible research and innovation?

Originally published on LinkedIn.

I would love to start a conversation on quality standards in peer review concerning responsible innovation and other aspects of research governance. Spider man is reminded that with ‘great power comes great responsibility’. Researchers in the humanities and the social sciences who study the governance of scientific research may not have action hero qualities, but they have acquired a certain influence over which projects get funded in the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) as they become part of mixed peer-review panels. How did we get there?

Not everybody is equally enchanted by industry’s uptake of technologies derived from molecular biology and other fields. Over time science funders have come to realise that public opinion no longer considers it a self-evident truth that science and technology are indisputable forces of good. And this has provided a window of opportunity to translate lessons from research about how science works into ideas about how scientific production could be better guided to serve the public interest. Enter responsible research and innovation, a set of governance instruments that several science funders in Europe are trying to implement, be it through added requirements in grant applications, interesting things like funding for my job etc.

I am a social scientist by training who quit the academic career track to work in research policy implementation. My work takes place in a biotechnology research network that spreads across an entire country. The scientists I work with are obliged by their funder to consider the (potential) impact their work has on the wider community. They are provided with a framework, but few practical guidance (there is a plethora of ‘tools’ and cases which I draw on for my work, but they are generally not suited for DIY use by STEM researchers). The framework is deliberately open, as it is feared that a check list approach would not lead to scientists taking sufficient time to seriously consider the societal implications of their work and to adjust their research agendas accordingly. In practice the framework’s openness presents a creative challenge. What can project teams do to address societal aspects of their work in a way that is useful to their research, too? Helping scientists figuring this out as they prepare a grant application is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.

Back to spider man. Grant writing is an art of clearly and concisely communicating complex ideas, walking the tightrope between making bold (if slightly exaggerated) promises and demonstrating feasibility, and the liberal use of buzzwords and typographic emphasis. How to translate a solid research governance strategy into this prose is tricky for we know little about how reviewers assess it. And I am always at a loss when advising scientists on this point. So, fellow social scientists and humanists who have assessed the responsible research and innovation part of a STEM funding application, how do you handle the responsibility of your great powers? What quality standards do you follow? Let’s talk.