By Margarita Staykova
Back in 2014 I participated in a UK/Brazil workshop in Science and Technology Studies (STS), that left a significant impression on me. It was then that I heard about the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework, learnt about open and linear innovation models, and had the chance to not only do but also reflect on my research practice. Created by STS scientists, the RRI framework aims to align scientific explorations to societal needs and environmental challenges. It proposes to do so by opening the research and innovation process to stakeholders, giving society a larger role in it, discussing risks and responsibility about emerging technologies at all stages of development, and reflecting on research motivations and aims.
As an experimental physicist, I value the playfulness and freedom of my work. Sometimes we design experiments to answer specific questions, such as what makes cells robust to mechanical stretch; other times, we work with industrial partners to turn our biological findings into material innovations; but mostly we build experiments and explore ideas born out of curiosity, and we stumble upon unexpected and valuable findings. As research motivations vary so greatly, I am left wondering how applicable is the RRI framework in reality. How do we teach students and fellow researchers the benefits of doing science with and for society, without devaluing the importance of blue-sky research? Can we involve the public and stakeholders in a research that is not connected to an obvious application?
In this new project, skilfully named by Tiago Moreira “Material Imagination”, we will explore whether curiosity and imagination- the hallmarks of science discovery, could be the common grounds for exchange between scientists and practitioners from different fields. After all, is the essence of the research process really different from other imaginative fields of work, such as art, design, architecture, cuisine, and even the moments of every-day discovery (a rhetoric question explored in depths in ‘The Poetry and Music of Science’ by Tom McLeish)?
I look forward to welcoming our fellows to Durham in January 2020 for 3 months of discussing, creating and practicing a new model of collaboration between scientists and society, which aims to expand blue sky research in imaginative and socially responsible directions. Our activities will be done in the context of a new research project with Wilson Poon and Lucas Le Nagard (University of Edinburgh), in which we will use lipid membranes to organize and guide living bacteria in the search for new materials.
You led the Public Discussion on Living Materials today and I asked you whether you were concerned about the risks of the study on E. Coli; I confess I wasn’t impressed by your answer. You seem to have made a new organism, for want of a better word, that is likely to have different infective properties from the original bacterium yet you gave no indication that you were worried about this. I understand and appreciate the benefits of blue sky thinking but I would have thought that the constraints of RRI might well apply to this particular study.