Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 81–103 | Cite as

A Mobilising Concept? Unpacking Academic Representations of Responsible Research and Innovation

  • Barbara E. RibeiroEmail author
  • Robert D. J. Smith
  • Kate Millar
Original Paper


This paper makes a plea for more reflexive attempts to develop and anchor the emerging concept of responsible research and innovation (RRI). RRI has recently emerged as a buzzword in science policy, becoming a focus of concerted experimentation in many academic circles. Its performative capacity means that it is able to mobilise resources and spaces despite no common understanding of what it is or should be ‘made of’. In order to support reflection and practice amongst those who are interested in and using the concept, this paper unpacks understandings of RRI across a multi-disciplinary body of peer-reviewed literature. Our analysis focuses on three key dimensions of RRI (motivations, theoretical conceptualisations and translations into practice) that remain particularly opaque. A total of 48 publications were selected through a systematic literature search and their content was qualitatively analysed. Across the literature, RRI is portrayed as a concept that embeds numerous features of existing approaches to govern and assess emerging technologies. Our analysis suggests that its greatest potential may be in its ability to unify and provide political momentum to a wide range of long-articulated ethical and policy issues. At the same time, RRI’s dynamism and resulting complexity may represent its greatest challenge. Further clarification on what RRI has to offer in practice—beyond what has been offered to date—is still needed, as well as more explicit engagement with research and institutional cultures of responsibility. Such work may help to realise the high political expectations that are attached to nascent RRI.


Responsible research and innovation Emerging science and technologies Scientific cultures Responsibility 



Research reported in this paper was supported by the Integrated EST Framework (EST-Frame) project ( funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme GA No. 288981 (Millar, Smith and Ribeiro) and through the Leverhulme Trust research programme “Making Science Public” (MSP) (RP2011-SP-013; Millar) and it is aligned with work being carried out within the Nottingham BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre (Millar). We would like to thank our colleagues within EST-Frame for engaging in several very helpful discussions regarding TA and RRI, as well as to Carmen McLeod (MSP), Sarah Hartley (MSP), and to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on previous drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara E. Ribeiro
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robert D. J. Smith
    • 1
    • 2
  • Kate Millar
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Applied BioethicsUniversity of NottinghamLeicestershireUK
  2. 2.Department of Social Science, Health and MedicineKing’s College LondonLondonUK

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