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Journal of Responsible Innovation

Call for Papers | Luck as a Challenge for the Responsible Governance of Science and Technology

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Deadline: 31 January 2020

Luck’s role in innovation processes is widely acknowledged. The potentially devastating implications of this for forward- and backward-looking science policies, however, are rarely addressed in detail. For an upcoming Special Issue on “Luck as a Challenge for the Responsible Governance of Science and Technology” in the Journal of Responsible Innovation, we invite contributions that shed a critical light on the specific challenges (and opportunities) that luck poses for the responsible governance of science and technology.

For instance, it is widely acknowledged that serendipity (i.e., fortunate but unanticipated discoveries) is ubiquitous in both science and technology. The discoveries of Penicillin and radioactivity, Nylon and Teflon, to name only a few of the more famous examples, were deeply entangled with chance. If one accepts that luck plays a major role in what might generically be termed innovation processes, this poses a fundamental challenge to their responsible governance.

It has been suggested that, because of luck, even highly popular strategies such as Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) – and related approaches to innovating responsibly (Owen & Pansera, 2019) - cannot ensure that innovations have socially desirable consequences. Prominent authors in that field have consequently outlined a concern for moral luck.

For individuals to be fully accountable for the consequences of innovation requires perfect foresight from the people involved in those processes, but this is overly demanding and ultimately impossible to achieve (Grinbaum & Groves, 2013, p. 125; Owen et. al. 2012, p. 756). Forward-looking innovation policies are therefore constantly endangered, in light of (good or bad) luck’s power to fundamentally influence the course of innovation processes. How – if at all – can we manage luck’s impact?

The fairness of backward-looking measures such as the attribution of responsibility and blame might also be questioned: How can one justify that innovators and scientists receive praise and reward (e.g prizes) for scientific discoveries or technological advancements, which were partially beyond their control and, in the end, unpredictable (Sand et. al. 2019)?

Despite these challenges, there are also scholars who argue that luck can be utilized to the better, for instance, in distributing funding (Gillies 2015, Roumbanis 2019). In the tradition of Vannevar Bush, for example, many argue that serendipity is best utilized by fostering pure over applied science, thus leaving the research process unconstrained and ungoverned (Klein 2008). This ideal of ungoverned science stands in stark opposition to the ideals of responsible innovation. Shall we try to increase and utilize serendipity by liberating science and innovation processes from the constraints of governance frameworks such as RRI?

Finally, recent work has suggested that the ‘light bulb moment’ paradigm, which assigns responsibility for discovery to especially perceptive individuals, neglects the often collective nature of serendipitous discoveries (Copeland 2019). Does it matter if we see luck as something that happens primarily to individuals, or to communities, or to societies as a whole, when we think about its impact on efforts toward responsible innovation? It may be that our perception of the scale of luck’s influence affects how (and whether) we think it might be managed.


The Special Issue thus aims at advancing our understanding of luck as a challenge for the responsible governance of science and technology. To this end, we encourage contributions that, for example:


  1. Discuss the relationship between luck, or serendipity, and responsibility.
  2. Discuss how specific approaches, frameworks and techniques of RRI deal with (or consciously ignore) the role of luck in science and innovation.
  3. Consider how to govern innovation processes in order to diminish chance or utilize it better (e.g. using lotteries to allocate funding, or, by shielding technological systems from luck through resilience engineering).
  4. Discuss notions of fairness in respect to backward-looking reward policies and desert for lucky innovations.
  5. Examine case studies that highlight the role of chance in science or technological development.
  6. Consider the role of luck in disruptive technologies.

Journal of Responsible Innovation

The Journal of Responsible Innovation (JRI) provides a forum for discussions of the normative assessment and governance of knowledge-based innovation.

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Guest editors

Martin Sand, (m.sand@tudelft.nl) Delft University of Technology (TU Delft)

Samantha Copeland, Delft University of Technology (TU Delft)

Submission Instructions

Full research papers (6,000-10,000 words) can be submitted until 31.01.2020. Please indicate upon submission that you aim to be included in this Special Issue. For further information, please contact m.sand@tudelft.nl.

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