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Journal of Responsible Innovation

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Humanizing RRI in a Cosmopolitan World: A China's Perspective

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31 August 2023

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31 January 2024

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Article collection guest advisor(s)

Lu Gao, The Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China
[email protected]

Ping Yan, Dalian University of Technology, Dalian, China
[email protected]

Tom Xiaowei Wang, Renmin University, Beijing, China
[email protected]

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Humanizing RRI in a Cosmopolitan World: A China's Perspective

With the understanding of RRI as a "transparent, interactive process" (Von Schomberg, 2012), "the set of relevant feasible options regarding solving a set of moral problems" (Van den Hoven, 2013), and as a "scientific governance" (E.C., 2007) from "the governance of risk to the governance of innovation" (Stilgoe et al., 2013), countries appear to be moving in similar directions, potentially involving science and society in a "coherent framework" which "coalesces and integrates several complementary approaches" (Owen et al., 2013). While the European Commission has been promoting RRI (Sutclife, 2011; E.C., 2012; E.C. 2013; E.C. 2019a; E.C. 2019b), efforts to practice RRI are not limited to Europe. Philosophical reflection on the legitimacy of applying RRI in China was discussed as early as 2017 (Wang & Yao, 2017). The initial practical attempts to conceptualize RRI in China have predominantly focused on ethical governance and science policy (Gao et al., 2019). Accordingly, there have been efforts to explore RRI practices in a case-based approach (Yan et al., 2022). observing RRI research and practice in China, we may identify common challenges RRI faces. Like the European context, RRI has a straightforward top-down approach in China, focusing on its stakeholders as government, enterprises, science, technology, etc. Through this special issue, we propose an exploratory research agenda to advance RRI thinking at the micro-level under the umbrella term "Humanizing RRI”.

"Humanizing RRI" is a call to action aimed at reorienting the theoretical discourse and practical implementation of RRI towards a more individual-centred approach. Current discussions and practices of RRI focus predominantly on significant actors, such as governments and conglomerates. We hold that the discourse of RRI should be humanized to better attend to the needs of individual agents. The concept of humanizing RRI can be understood in two main dimensions.

Firstly, Implementing RRI in developing countries like China has faced challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, China's traditional science and technology management system, characterized by scientism, developmentalism, and a top-down management model, is just partially compatible with RRI. On the other hand, the rapid social transition in China has increased the awareness of various stakeholders——the public, scientific community, enterprises, and government——of their responsibility for innovation, creating a favourable environment for RRI development (Zhao & Liao, 2017). Although recent RRI research in China has prioritized policy and organizational aspects (Wang & Long, 2022), we propose a shift toward an individual-centred approach to RRI. Such an approach, which we refer to as "humanizing RRI", emphasizes individual innovation participants and is essential for a deeper understanding and more effective addressing of the challenges posed by the practical realities in China.

Secondly, humanizing RRI with an individual-centred approach does not necessarily imply a need for localization; instead, it should be placed within a broader context that Ulrich Beck referred to as a "cosmopolitan" world. (Beck,2013). The extensive impact of science and technology, such as AI, the metaverse, and human genome editing, has fundamentally altered society, resulting in new forms of power, inequality, and insecurity. Although we would like to envision the cosmopolitan world as a possibility of cooperation, we must acknowledge that the picture is far from optimistic, revealing the unwanted and unseen globalized social tensions underlying existing national jurisdictions. Under such circumstances, humanizing RRI could be a practical approach to transcend the present status quo to seek collaboration and solidarity from an individual level. Therefore, understanding humanizing RRI in a cosmopolitan world and implementing it under these circumstances are the main research questions to be addressed in this special issue.

Humanizing RRI can be a powerful tool for uncovering scientific and technological innovation's often overlooked dimensions. The term RRI first entered the academic visions of Chinese scholars in 2010. Two Chinese scholars, respectively, came back home from the Netherlands and the US and talked about Responsible Innovation in nanomedicine innovation (Zhao, 2010) and in a case study of engineering ethics (Zhu & Wang, 2010). Since then, RRI has gradually become a hot spot research term in Chinese academia, and there have been five kinds of research on it: RRI's introduction (Yan et al., 2013; Mei & Chen, 2014; Liu, 2015; Du et al., 2016; Xue et al., 2016), theoretical study on RRI (Liu, 2015; Mei & Chen, 2015; Zhang, 2016; Xue & Zhao, 2017; Mei et al., 2017, 2018; Gan & Liu, 2017; Wang & Yao, 2017; Xue & Yan, 2018; Liao, 2019; Zhang, 2021), policy research at RRI (Zhao & Liao, 2017; Huang et al., 2018; Tang, 2021), to look into technology innovation and risk with RRI's perspective (Xue, 2015; Zhao & Dorbeck-Jung, 2016; Li et al., 2016; Pan et al., 2016; Guo & Liu, 2019; Chen & Wang, 2019; Ma & Wang, 2020)  and case studies on RRI (Yan et al., 2015; Yu et al., 2015; Jia et al., 2017; Fan, 2017; Cong, 2018; Xu & Wang, 2021). Despite China's efforts to advance RRI with the above five aspects, meanwhile, participation and engagement of various stakeholders are understood as key to RRI. However, research exploring the context of innovators from an individual perspective is still limited, especially in the Chinese context. In China, the inclusion of RRI in the country's 13th Five-Year Plan on Scientific and Technological Innovation (2016-2020) was initially viewed by many as merely a slogan, needing more precise implementation details. Since the earthquake caused by He Jiankui's gene-edited babies, China has made significant efforts to establish ethical science and technology governance (Lei et al., 2019) by publishing new policies and amending laws, which aligns with the West at an institutional level. These changes are readily observable in research, but those less perceptible and detectable are more likely to manifest in individuals. For example, after serving three years in prison, He Jiankui returned to the research community to begin studying DMD. However, he did not reflect on his past experiences and refused to answer questions about ethical factors in future research.[1] Instead of solely criticizing He Jiankui, can we understand his emergence from an individual researcher's perspective and why he chose to recklessly embark on new DMD research under new policies and regulations? Who are the policy implementers and participants, and how do ordinary researchers interact with them during the research process? We believe the Humanizing RRI approach could help for further analysis, unlike the term "stakeholders", which can be a vague catch-all phrase that fails to identify these societal actors, their motivations for participating, and how their contributions can be integrated into deliberative democracy (Braun, 2023), humanizing RRI takes a narrative and individual-centred approach. This approach can help us better understand how institutions think and relate to the actors behind them. In addition, the open-ended nature of RRI also creates opportunities for individuals to step forward, demonstrate their interests and values, and reveal the "new clothes of the emperor", so to speak (Rip, 2016).

Humanizing RRI allows us to follow individuals and maintain our way in translation. In the past, it tended to view change as homogeneous, following a diffusion model. However, as Latour pointed out, in a translation model, actors are not passive recipients but actively participate in re-embedding ideas. Despite the global trend towards responsible and socially embedded innovation policies, there are significant differences between countries in the global north and south. To understand these differences and similarities, we must engage in more detailed inquiries with people and actors in different contexts, looking for what Irwin et al. (2021) describe as "isomorphic difference". Humanizing RRI can help us recognize that what may appear the same on the surface can be very different when viewed in context. By engaging with diverse perspectives and experiences, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities of RRI and develop more effective and equitable innovation policies and practices.

Humanizing RRI could be essential to solving present and future problems in a more cosmopolitan world. The cosmopolitan background of RRI emphasizes recognizing multiple voices and achieving an understanding of similarities in different cultures, as Beck (2006) argued in "rooted cosmopolitanism". Cosmopolitanism is not rooted in the world but in the individuals and the individual's actions. This approach enables us to identify shared characteristics between various countries, including liberal and non-liberal states (Wong, 2016), beyond the confines of national and political contexts. This special issue explores how RRI can be humanized from a Chinese perspective, with the aspiration of sparking similar discussions from varying cultural viewpoints. Just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is ratified by most countries, leaving its justification open for countries to reference their traditions, humanizing RRI can serve as a common ground for further deliberation on the development of RRI.

We call for a contribution and discussion of Humanizing RRI from multiple perspectives. Contributions may, for instance, address one of the following questions:

  • How can we understand the Humanizing RRI agenda from different disciplines, such as philosophy, STS, sociology, etc., and how can we better integrate empirical research with theoretical discussions on RRI?
  • Has RRI in Europe undergone a shift from focusing on individuals to policy-making? If so, do early RRI studies provide theoretical resources that Humanizing RRI can draw upon?
  • Does Humanizing RRI potentially address the unresolved issues in RRI today?
  • How can we implement the Humanizing RRI agenda across different science and technology fields, such as AI, biology, data governance, engineering design, etc.?
  • How can we understand the cosmopolitan background of Humanizing RRI, what new challenges it poses, and what new insights in understanding the concept?
  • We invite more case studies to showcase the features of Humanizing RRI in a cosmopolitan world.

All manuscripts submitted to this Article Collection will undergo a full peer-review; the Guest Advisor for this collection will not be handling the manuscripts (unless they are an Editorial Board member). Please review the journal scope and author submission instructions prior to submitting a manuscript.

The deadline for submitting manuscripts is 31 January 2024.

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