Tony Blair and William Hague persuasively argued in their recent New National Purpose Report that we need to put science and technology at the heart of our mission to shape a more sustainable, healthy and prosperous world. But the former UK prime minister and leader of the opposition were also wise to note that, as history shows, technological innovation can unleash as many problems as it solves.
The challenges we are urgently addressing were to some degree caused by technological change.
Industrialisation underlies climate change, declines in biodiversity and the increased threat of pandemics. The rise of the internet has worsened inequalities. Nuclear technology comes with profound safety concerns.
The crucial lesson of this is that we need to factor in wider societal impacts, risks and opportunities as a fundamental part of how we design and deliver technological innovation. Too often, social sciences, humanities and the arts are an afterthought. Sociologists, lawyers, designers or ethicists are brought in to facilitate the successful roll-out of a new treatment, service or product, but once it has been designed. Instead, we need to bake in insights and approaches from across these disciplines from the very start – shaping how we frame our research goals, questions and methods.
A number of bodies – notably the British Academy, which first coined the acronym SHAPE to champion the role of “Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy” – are actively plugging this agenda. And funders are starting to buy in, increasingly framing challenge-oriented research as requiring interdisciplinary approaches. But often the ask is vague, and review panels are not sufficiently academically diverse to redeem these bolder aspirations.
Looking to industry
Indeed, at the University of Edinburgh, we have found that industry partners have often been more foresighted in funding disruptive innovation. The financial services company Legal and General financed our Advanced Care Research Centre, bringing together roboticists, clinicians and social scientists to rethink later-life care. And investment management company Baillie Gifford supported our Centre for Technomoral Futures, which integrates informatics and ethics to explore issues such as moral responsibility in autonomous systems.
So one part of the solution is a more comprehensive rethink of how we frame and review research investments. In the UK, the government could play a key role in this through the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, particularly in the context of the new Advanced Research and Innovation Agency, which aims to fund high-risk, high-reward innovation.
Getting everyone on board
Higher education institutions also have a clear role to play. Most research-intensive universities have created centres and networks that bring together diverse disciplinary approaches. Yet, in many cases, researchers end up working side-by-side rather than together, without fundamentally rethinking their questions or approaches. Genuinely interdisciplinary working can be hard work, uncomfortable and risky, so we need to ensure all parts of the research environment – organisational structures, reward systems, funding and peer review – pull in the same direction.
Even when this happens, we have found that a key part of the problem is that STEM researchers often lack the experience to scope relevant SHAPE inputs, understand what kinds of approaches might work best or identify the right collaborators for a new piece of research.
Accessing the right help
Our answer to this has been to develop a tool for mapping the role of SHAPE in technological innovation. Our simple online resource for researchers does two things. First, it maps the dimensions of tech innovation that would benefit from SHAPE input – from security, risks and harm through to inequalities and user perspectives, economic impacts, ethics, and regulatory settings.
Second, it identifies key research groupings that can deliver this expertise in our focus areas of sustainability, health and data. It effectively acts as a match-making service for interdisciplinary research collaboration.
For example, an engineer developing new clean energy technologies for homes could use the tool to explore a range of potential considerations, including the economic impact of new devices, potential risks and harms, implications for equality and inclusion, the regulatory context, the role of place and local context, public attitudes and controversies around the technology, the importance of user-friendly design, and lessons learned from the historical introduction of such innovations.
While it may not be feasible to factor in all of these dimensions, researchers might focus on one or two, and then use the tool to contact relevant researchers. And this could inform how they frame research questions, design the research, identify collaborators and think about governance of the project.
Making the disruptive, the norm
Our tool is just one element of the wider ecosystem that needs to change. Research organisations, government, funders, industry partners, disciplinary studies associations and journals all need to play their parts. But by helping STEM and SHAPE colleagues to make these connections, we hope to normalise the integration of SHAPE perspectives into challenge-oriented research, from inception to application.
If we do this, we can ensure that carbon-reduction technologies are adopted by the public, that artificial intelligence does not entrench existing inequalities, and that our healthcare system can keep pace with the implications of genome sequencing.
Only in this way can we exploit the full potential of technological innovation for the benefit of people and planet.
Discover more on this article
Christina Boswell is also Vice President of the British Academy.
This piece first appeared in Times Higher Education
Picture credits: Laura Lezza, Westend61, NanoStockk, Whitedog photography and GettyImages