No sensible person could favor irresponsible research and innovation. So RRI—”responsible research and innovation“—may sound like an innocuous idea. As it takes hold in Europe, though, the term has clearly become a cover for what amounts to a Luddites’ veto. Now the notion is percolating among American academics. If it finds its way to the halls of state, RRI would dramatically slow technological progress and perhaps even bring it to a grinding halt.
That wouldn’t be an unexpected byproduct. Several RRI proponents have explicitly argued for “slow innovation,” even “responsible stagnation.” One of them—Bernd Carsten Stahl, a professor of critical research in technology at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom—has even compared technological breakthroughs to a pandemic. “We should ask whether emerging technologies can and will be perceived as a threat of a similar level as the current threat of the Covid virus,” he wrote in 2020. If so, he added, they would require “radical intervention.”
An Overabundance of Caution
Before we explore RRI, we should take a look at its precursor, a pernicious notion known as the precautionary principle. This concept is often summarized as “better safe than sorry”—but there’s a bit more to it than that.
In 1998, a group of environmentalists meeting at the Wingspread retreat center in Wisconsin hammered out the now more or less canonical version of the precautionary principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” The so-called Wingspread Statement explicitly shifts the burden of proof, so that anyone proposing a new activity cannot proceed without showing that it will not—or, at least, is very unlikely to—cause significant harm. This amounts to a demand for trials without error.
Political scientist Aaron Wildavsky anticipated how such an idea would actually end up doing more harm. “An indirect implication of trial without error is that if trying new things is made more costly, there will be fewer departures from past practice; this very lack of change may itself be dangerous in forgoing chances to reduce existing hazards,” he wrote in his 1988 book Searching for Safety. “Existing hazards will continue to cause harm if we fail to reduce them by taking advantage of the opportunity to benefit from repeated trials.”
But as misguided as it is, the precautionary principle is at least focused on preventing harms to health and the environment. In a 2021 article for the Journal of Responsible Innovation, three responsible research and innovation boosters—Richard Owen, René von Schomberg, and Phil Macnaghten—called RRI “a move from risk governance to innovation governance.” Two more proponents, Stevienna de Saille and Fabien Medvecky, put it more plainly in 2016: RRI, they wrote, focuses not just on an innovation’s health and environmental impact but its “impact on values, morals and social relations.”
So innovators won’t just have to prove somehow that their technologies pose no harm to human health or the environment. They’ll also have to show that they will not do too much to disrupt a society’s prevailing morals, culture, and livelihoods.
RRI’s advocates trace their intellectual roots to British chemist David Collingridge’s 1980 book The Social Control of Technology. “The social consequences of a technology cannot be predicted early in the life of the technology,” he wrote. “By the time undesirable consequences are discovered, however, the technology is often so much part of the whole economic and social fabric that its control is extremely difficult.” Collingridge called this process “entrenchment.” His modern acolytes describe it as technological “lock-in.”
Note Collingridge’s focus on social consequences. To weigh those consequences, he did not turn to the decentralized process where producers and consumers evaluate new products for their safety, quality, and efficacy via the marketplace. Collingridge called for political control.
What sort of undesirable consequences did he have in mind? One was that “modern medicine and hygiene has reduced the death rate in developing countries, but doing so has generated an uncontrollable increase in population.” Another was that “food production has increased through the use of chemicals, but at the cost of the future collapse of agriculture due to damage to soil and its supporting ecosystem.”
Collingridge’s forecasts did not come true. World population is expected to peak around the middle of this century, thanks to modern innovations such as effective birth control. Global cereal production has not collapsed and, indeed, has more than doubled since Collingridge’s book appeared. If RRI had been a part of the political system in 1980, we might not have “entrenched” or “locked in” these new technologies, but we would have entrenched and locked in a lot of hunger and substandard health care.
Collingridge also mused darkly about the coming consequences of the then-emerging technology of “microelectronics.” He warned, “This technology is in its infancy, and it is now possible to place all kinds of controls and restrictions on its development, even to the point of deciding to do without it altogether.” And why would we consider doing without it altogether? “Concern has been expressed about the unemployment which may result from the uncontrolled development and diffusion of microelectronics, but our understanding of this effect is extremely limited.”
Microelectronics—in the form of personal computing and the internet—did indeed destroy 3.5 million jobs in the U.S., according to a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report. But the same report calculated that those technologies have created 19.3 million new jobs since 1980, yielding a net gain of 15.8 million jobs. That’s about 10 percent of the current U.S. civilian work force. It’s a good thing we didn’t have an RRI tribunal with the power to declare this technology so dire that it would be better to “do without it altogether.”
If such a tribunal had existed a century before that, hostlers and buggy whip makers—or as the RRI crowd would call them, transportation industry “stakeholders”—would have been empowered to keep cars off the roads. Collingridge and his acolytes would have nodded their heads approvingly.
The Evils of the Automobile
In her 2016 book The Ethics of Invention, Harvard-based RRI proponent Sheila Jasanoff decries cars. “The life history of the automobile,” she declares, “remains a paradigmatic case study in the limits of human foresight. The car unlocked immense possibilities for individual freedom and productivity, but these went hand in hand with drastic consequences for society that no one had imagined or regulated in timely fashion.” Cars, she continued, had brought “more than a million traffic deaths worldwide each year, the spread of deadening, routinized work practices, the blight of urban air pollution, the fragmentation of communities, the decay of once-great manufacturing centers, and eventually world-threatening climate change.” She then asks, “Could current practices of responsible innovation and anticipatory governance have turned the tide of the automobile’s history before it took a tragic course?”
When she wrote those words, Jasanoff was following in Collingridge’s footsteps. For Collingridge, the automobile is the archetypal example of an innovation that unfortunately escaped social control. “The British Royal Commission on the Motor Car of 1908 saw the most serious problem of this infant technology to be the dust thrown up from untarred roads,” he wrote. (He had the year wrong; the commission released its report in 1906.) “With hindsight we smile, but only with hindsight.” Collingridge acknowledged that “dust was a recognized problem at the time, and so one which could be tackled,” but he went on to lament that the “much more serious social consequences of the motor car with which we are now all too familiar could not have been predicted with any certainty.”
There was indeed considerable testimony at the time about the dust created by automobiles. They were much heavier than horse carriages and wagons, and their wheels were often metal, thus pounding down unpaved roads. In its 1906 report, the Royal Commission recommended experiments with applying dust preventives such as tar and mineral oils to roadways.
But that was hardly the only objection cars faced in their early days. If RRI had existed in that era, the “stakeholders” would have acted on their social values. And the social values at the turn of the 20th century were decidedly anti-automobile.
On May 23, 1902, The New York Times described the results of a postcard poll sent to 30,000 city residents on increasing the speed limit of automobiles. “Ninety-five per cent of those who responded are opposed to the extension of the speed limit from eight to ten miles per hour,” the paper reported. Four days later, a letter to the Times decried “reckless speeders of ponderous automobiles” as “the idle and vicious rich.”
A July 6, 1902, Times article noted an “increase in hostility toward automobilists.” The “admiration and interest of at least a very large part of the public has been succeeded by open hostility,” it reported. “Motor vehicles encounter abuse at almost every point, and of late passive hostility has developed into active attacks, not only upon drivers who run their machines at an illegal rate of speed, but those who observe the legal speed limit.” The article went on to recount an incident in which an irritated farmer shot a passing car.
A few years after that, the president of Princeton University (and future president of the U.S.) joined in. “Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles,” Woodrow Wilson declared in a 1906 speech. “To the countryman they are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness.”
Then there were the economic interests who disliked the car. In his 2008 book Autophobia, historian Brian Ladd detects “the hand of the horse-and-cart lobby in a 1908 English poster that lamented the loss of 100,000 jobs in that industry only after capturing the attention of passersby with an attack on the ‘reckless motorists’ who ‘kill your children,’ dogs, and chickens, ‘fill your house with dust’ as well as ‘spoil your clothes with dust’ and ‘poison the air we breathe.'”
The automobile had its defenders. “The man who knows [the car] from the outside only despises it and damns it on general principles,” wrote Argosy publisher Frank Munsey in 1903. But, after their first ride, he observed that everyone is an “easy convert” to automobiles. He added, “I have never known a case, however bitter and unreasoning the prejudice, where one didn’t change squarely about on the very first ride in a good car.” With time, more people had a chance to take that ride: Cars became popular with the masses after Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced Model T on October 1, 1908, making them far more affordable. Had RRI tribunals existed back in 1900, the technology might not ever have advanced that far.
Having missed their chance to turn the tide against conventional cars, some RRI proponents have now set their sights on the emerging technology of autonomous vehicles (A.V.s). Their objections can be found in the output of several carefully plotted focus groups conducted in the name of inclusive stakeholder and public engagement. For example, Belgian anthropologist Axelle Van Wynsberghe and the European Commission official Ângela Guimarães Pereira conducted several “citizen engagement activities” to evaluate the technology. In those meetings, they reported in 2021, “citizens seem to be motivated to limit if not eliminate car use, and are invested in prioritising active modes of transport such as walking and biking….Overall, what was questioned was whether the driverless and vehicle automation was indeed the needed response to mobility problems faced by citizens.”
Without bothering with the camouflage of citizen engagement, RRI supporter Robert Braun of the Institute for Advanced Studies got right to the point. “Instead of asking whether we need self-driving vehicles, why not ask whether we need cars at all?” he wrote in 2018. Better, he argued, to walk, bike, or take public transportation.
Since relatively few people have had much experience with self-driving vehicles, it’s not surprising that many are currently concerned about their social and economic effects. In March 2022, a Pew Research Center survey found 44 percent of Americans say widespread use of driverless cars would be a bad idea for society. Only 26 percent said it would be a good idea; 29 percent didn’t know. In addition, “Roughly six-in-ten adults (63%) say they would not want to ride in a driverless passenger vehicle if they had the opportunity, while a much smaller share (37%) say they would want to do this.” Like the horseless carriages of yore, self-driving cars have also provoked some ire. People wielding rocks and knives had attacked Waymo A.V.s in Arizona and California.
Of course, as businesses with skin in the game, A.V. developers are already engaging with and learning from the public. For example, Waymo cooperated with researchers at Arizona State University and the Federal Transit Administration in a study in which older and disabled participants in the Phoenix metro area could summon autonomous Waymo vehicles by app. The study‘s “key findings were that participants felt safe, found the AV services more convenient than typical RideChoice options, and engaged in more out-of-home activities (i.e., made new trips) as a result of the AV option.” Overall, the participants rated the A.V.s’ wait times, travel times, convenience, and comfort higher than their ratings for traditional options.
Even more importantly, the report found that “riders were in general agreement in their excitement to ride in a Waymo vehicle with no trained vehicle operator,” noting that “many felt that, just as they became comfortable with the AV technology with a trained vehicle operator who was there only as back-up, they felt that they would similarly adjust to riding in fully driverless vehicles and looked forward to the opportunity to do so.” Just as first-time riders were “easy converts” to automobiles back in 1903, riders of modern autonomous vehicles are likely to come around soon. But not if RRI arbiters deploying public engagement exercises with malice aforethought succeed in blocking the technology through regulations that entrench and lock in the social values that currently reign.
Most people don’t know what they’ll think of a new technology until they have actually used it. The market is a discovery process that allows us to try out new things and either accept or reject them. The RRI crowd wants to block that process.
Standing Athwart Innovation, Yelling Stop
The same crowd wants to slow or stop the innovation unfolding in other fields, including crop biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and human reproduction. With regard to the latter, Jasanoff and her colleagues argued in 2019 that germline editing threatens “the future of human integrity and autonomy as we have long understood these concepts.” Consequently, “public permission is a prerequisite to disrupting fundamental elements of social order.”
Sounds profound and serious, right? Let’s see how it sounds when applied to an earlier reproductive technology that disrupted “fundamental elements of social order.” When the birth control pill was introduced, it certainly impacted “values, morals and social relations.” How might RRI tribunals, had they existed in 1960, have entrenched and locked in the social values of the day?
As late as 1965, Gallup reported that only 18 percent of adult American women and 14 percent of adult men approved of giving the pill to women in college. In 1970, only 24 percent of men and 12 percent of women thought teens should have access to oral contraceptives. On a related question, a 1963 National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey found that fewer than one in five respondents considered premarital sex acceptable.
Not everyone agreed with the majority, of course. In 1965, Cornell University political scientist Andrew Hacker surveyed 200 first-year college students on whether college clinics should distribute contraceptive pills to undergraduate women upon request. “It is hardly necessary to say that a good majority of the boys thought this was a splendid idea,” Hacker wrote subsequently in The New York Times. “But what surprised me was that most of the girls also agreed with this proposal.” In a subsequent letter to the editor, a father observed that since we cannot “count on the ‘old ties of family, community, church, and trade’ as strong or satisfactory deterrent to wild sexual abandon,” he would “be wise to arrange” as a high school graduation present for his daughter a “gift certificate for several free years of pills.”
At the end of his article, Hacker concluded that when the pill “receives wide distribution, as it will, it will challenge our capacity to use yet another innovation with sophistication and responsibility. Just as we have adjusted our lives to the television set and the automobile, so—in 20 years’ time—we shall take the pill for granted, and wonder how we ever lived without it.” He was prescient. A July 2022 FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey found that nearly 90 percent of Americans think birth control pills should be legal. Data collected by Kaiser Family Foundation in May and June 2022 showed “more than three-quarters (77%) of reproductive age females favor making birth control pills available over the counter without a prescription.”
By then, several nonsexual benefits to the technology had become clear as well: Then–University of Michigan economist Martha Bailey reported in 2013 that “individuals’ access to contraceptives increased their children’s college completion, labor force participation, wages, and family incomes decades later.” Would that have happened if RRI’s “public engagement processes” had locked in mid–20th century sexual values?
Or consider another reproductive technology: in vitro fertilization (IVF). A 1969 Harris poll found a majority of Americans believing that IVF babies were “against God’s will.” In the 1970s, the U.S. government came close to entrenching that societal value when it imposed a moratorium on federal funding of IVF research. Yet just one month after the birth in 1978 of the world’s first test-tube baby, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans approved of IVF and more than half would consider using it if they were infertile. Today, social acceptance of IVF is even more widespread. It turns out that people are perfectly happy to use new technologies to disrupt “fundamental elements of social order” and undermine “long understood concepts” if they will enable parents to have healthy babies. Had RRI locked in earlier social opposition to IVF, more than a million fewer children would have been born to American parents, along with another 7 million globally.
What about safely gene-editing human embryos? Back in 2016, a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health and the online publication STAT found that 65 percent of Americans thought it should be illegal to change the genes of unborn babies to reduce their risk of developing certain serious diseases. Just two years later, an Associated Press/NORC survey found that 71 percent favored editing embryos’ genes to prevent an incurable or fatal disease that a child would inherit, 67 percent approved of gene editing to reduce the risk of diseases that might develop later in life, and 65 percent supported using it to prevent inherited nonfatal conditions such as blindness. So the same process of growing acceptance is well underway here too.
Other biotechnological developments have fallen under RRI proponents’ baleful eyes as well. Writing last year in Agriculture and Human Values, a team of Norwegian RRI boosters celebrated the European Union’s decision to essentially ban an earlier generation of biotech-enhanced crops. “European legislation, based on the precautionary principle, has arguably served European communities well in restricting the use of ‘early’ GMOs of limited environmental and societal benefit,” they claimed.
Limited benefits? Really? A 2014 meta-analysis in PLoS One found that such technologies have “reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.” The study also reported that “yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.” A 2022 study in the journal GM Crops & Food calculated that the shift to genetically modified crops reduced greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 alone by the equivalent of taking 16 million cars off the road. More generally, a 2021 study in the Journal of Political Economy found that from 1965 to 2010, the adoption of high-yielding crops increased yields by 44 percent, which in turn raised incomes and reduced population growth. From 1961 to 2014, the adoption of high-yield crops spared 1.26 billion hectares of land that would otherwise have been plowed down to produce food. That is about the same area as the United States and India combined.
The Norwegian RRI writers demand that “neither the scale nor the agent of the application of [new genomic techniques] must be allowed to disrupt the functioning of already existing environmental, socio-cultural, or economic structures the public (or community) finds to be of value.” This amounts to a demand that farmers must grow crops just as they do now and consumers must eat just what is available now and land must stay just as it is now—forever.
The RRI crowd has been clear about what it is targeting. In 2021, Owen, von Schomberg, and Macnaghten celebrated the movement’s challenge to “the technology-market dyad that…unreflexively assumes innovation as being inherently good, desirable and the engine of choice to foster economic growth, productivity and prosperity.”
RRI proponents are quite right that largely unfettered technological innovations and economic growth over the past two centuries have disrupted old social values. And certainly, they have been accompanied by downsides, such as pollution, deforestation, economic dislocation, and the discord that sometimes follows the spread of new mores.
But let’s look at what humanity has gained in that time. Absolute poverty—living on less than $1.90 per person per day—has declined from 85 percent of the world’s population in 1820 to less than 9 percent now. Total global gross domestic product (GDP) stood at about $1.2 trillion (in real dollars) in 1820, then nearly tripled to $3.4 trillion in 1900. Since then, world GDP has grown nearly 40-fold to around $134 trillion in 2021. As a result, GDP per capita increased from $2,000 per person in 1900 to nearly $15,000 per person in 2016.
Global cereal production has quadrupled from 740 million metric tons in 1961 to 3 billion tons in 2020. Before 1700, about 300 out of 1,000 infants died before their first birthday; the number is around 30 now. As a result, global average life expectancy has risen from around 30 years to more than 72 years over the same period. Global literacy has increased from roughly 10 percent in 1820 to around 90 percent today. In 1900, no country allowed women to vote; now nearly all do.
All of these positive trends occurred either as a direct result of technological innovation or as a result of the economic development that innovation made possible. Adam Thierer of the R Street Institute calls this a system of “permissionless innovation.” This is, in his words, “the idea that experimentation with new technologies and innovations should generally be permitted by default and that prior restraints on creative activities should be avoided except in those cases where clear and immediate harm is evident.” In other words, innovators engage in trial-and-error experimentation to develop new products and services, whose desirability they then test in the marketplace.
University of Illinois Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskey similarly notes that the “Great Enrichment” of the past couple of centuries was driven by “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among the parties involved.” She calls this “market-tested betterment,” but it’s the same “technology-market dyad” that von Schomberg and other RRI proponents aim to “challenge” by requiring that new technologies obtain “public permission” before they are allowed into the marketplace. RRI would foreclose not only new technologies but the evolving social values and ways of living they make possible.
“Fostering innovation requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice,” Thierer and James Broughel of the Mercatus Center wrote in 2019. “Sometimes we must tolerate disruption today for a better world tomorrow.” That is the core truth that the RRI movement refuses to recognize.