Below we describe our findings according to the key study questions of: How do nano-agrifood researchers define RI? How do they define non-RI? What practices do they use to achieve RI? What motivations do they see for pursuing RI? And finally, how do the RI definitions, practices, and motivations articulated by nano-agrifood researchers relate to four key RI principles of anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity, and responsiveness?
Definitions of Responsible Innovation
Our analysis of researcher responses to the question “What does it mean to innovate responsibly?” yielded six emergent themes: (1) Products do not harm human health and/or the environment, (2) Create effective and efficient products, (3) Use systems thinking, life cycle analysis or sustainable practices, (4) Adhere to regulations, (5) Develop products that are publicly acceptable, and (6) Engage stakeholders (Table 1). Of these six themes, the two most frequently mentioned themes involved product safety, efficacy, and efficiency: (1) Products do not harm human health and/or the environment (100% of study participants, i.e., 20/20 participants) and (2) Create effective and/or efficient products (80% of participants). For example, one respondent echoed these themes in response to this question: “Responsible commercialization is understanding that the products are safe and effective and you are a good steward of the environment.”
Two less frequently mentioned themes highlighted specific processes to achieve safe products: Use systems thinking, life cycle analysis, or sustainable practices, and Adhere to regulations. Another infrequently mentioned theme, Engage stakeholders, emphasized the importance of considering a breadth of perspectives within innovation. Key to this definition of RI was not being solely motivated by a single company’s profits, and engaging stakeholders was seen as a way to accomplish that. As one industry researcher said, “You can tell when there’s responsible innovation, when there’s comfortable stakeholders, and sort of the more diverse the stakeholders the better…. When you collect those individuals or different entities and organizations, you start having to apply some of that public good, right? Because once you bring in diverse stakeholders together, you’re no longer motivated for one sector or one company’s profits.”
Definitions of Non-responsible Innovation
To further explore nano-agrifood researcher perspectives on the definition of RI, we also asked interviewees what they thought it meant to not innovate responsibly (Table 2). In this case, we found that there was less agreement across participant responses compared to the previous question (Table 1). The two most frequently mentioned themes focused on product safety: (1) Ignore non-target environmental and/or human impacts of products (60% of participants) and (2) Use hazardous, unknown, and/or uncontrollable substances in products (35%). The most prevalent theme was captured by one academic researcher who described that to not innovate responsibly meant: “To purposely produce something that has an impact or an off-target impact and just ignore that. Not paying attention to the off-target impact.”
Three of the less frequently mentioned themes (i.e., Focus solely on profits, Avoid regulatory scrutiny, and Lack collaboration and interdisciplinarity) described actions that could get in the way of achieving a safe product (Table 2). For example, researchers alluded to the idea that safe, and in their eyes therefore responsible, innovation could not be achieved by focusing solely on profits and ignoring potential environmental and human health impacts of a product. Alternatively, some noted that if you lack collaboration and interdisciplinarity, there are limitations to understanding the complex issues surrounding nano-agrifood products. For example, one academic researcher said, you need “partners who have skills in a wide range of subjects, including soil microbiologists, toxicologists, mechanical engineers, chemists, modelers”; otherwise, you may not really understand a product. Another theme, Misleading by underselling or overselling, concerned how people relate to nanotechnology and emphasized that considering “all nanotechnology” to be either good or bad oversimplifies the technology and neglects the importance of context in making such judgments.
Practices of Responsible Innovation
Our analysis of researcher practices for achieving RI of nano-agrifoods yielded eight emergent themes. Similar to the definitions of RI, the three most frequently mentioned themes were dominated by concerns about safety: (1) Consider, or conduct studies on, environmental and human health safety (100% of study participants); (2) Adhere to lab safety practices (60%); and (3) Use materials that are low risk (55%) (Table 3). In reality, the first category, because of its broad framing, includes both the following categories on lab safety and using low-risk materials. We specifically include the categories Adhere to lab safety practices and Use materials that are low risk on their own because they were frequently mentioned in their own right.
The next two most frequently mentioned practices (i.e., Engage stakeholders and Collaborate interdisciplinarily) both highlight the importance of collaboration, but in different ways (Table 3). First, interviewees mentioned the importance of collaboration when discussing how a single discipline cannot adequately study nano-enabled agrifood applications because of their complexity. As one academic interviewee said, “You can’t rely on yourself alone… We worked with a diverse body of experts, so we had toxicologists, we have life-cycle practitioners.” This version of collaboration across disciplines was specific to concerns about achieving product safety, efficacy, and efficiency. A different end of collaboration, not directly associated with product safety, was articulated with the theme Engage stakeholders. This practice included collaborating with and receiving feedback from stakeholders and was associated with how researchers determined what specific products to pursue. In other words, in addition to safety, efficacy, and efficiency, what other considerations should inform what paths nano-agrifoods innovation take? For example, academic researchers discussed the importance of reaching out to industry or product users to determine if potential research trajectories were promising. As one academic interviewee said: “We’re trying to avoid some kind of technology that they [the company] don’t like… So, we always try to learn their views… then we take those back to the lab to see how our research, our technology, can be developed to meet those expectations from them.” As discussed in our section “Key RI Principles Across Researcher RI Definitions, Practices, and Motivations,” however, the desire to align innovation with the interests of industry was not the only end that researchers articulated, as they also mentioned aligning innovation with the pursuit of public goods that benefit society.
Safety, efficacy, and efficiency were once again key factors in the three least frequently mentioned themes (i.e., Adhere to regulations; Hold lab meetings to discuss research; and Conduct literature reviews) (Table 3). These themes represent practices that interviewees found important for ensuring that proper research was conducted to help support product safety and effectiveness.
Motivations for Pursuing Responsible Innovation
Our analysis of the question “What motivations exist for pursuing nanotechnology responsible innovation?” yielded eight emergent themes, each representing a reason why researchers pursue RI for nano-agrifoods. Similar to the previously described themes, the most prevalent motivations involved safety, effectiveness, and efficiency: Not harm human health and/or the environment (80%) and Create more efficient and effective products (60%). The prevalence of these two themes reinforces how central environmental and human health safety as well as efficiency and efficacy were to researcher notions of RI. The third most prevalent theme, however, was the motivation to Improve human well-being and/or solve societal problems. This broadened the focus beyond safe, effective, and efficient products to the purpose of innovation itself. One industry researcher articulated the desire to solve societal problems in the following way: “It’s exciting to see somebody who has had a problem, has not been able to solve it, and I can help them solve that problem, and I can help them rescue a crop, or rescue a yield, or just frankly use less fertilizer.”
Because of the topic area of our study, many of the societal problems that researchers articulated had to do with the environmental and human health impacts of intensive agriculture. The solutions they discussed involved using nanotechnologies and/or engineered nanomaterials to create agrifood products that were more efficient, effective, and safe than conventional counterparts. The emphasis on solving societal problems as the motivation for RI stands in contrast to three other motivations articulated by researchers that align with industry interests: (1) Protect reputation, (2) Avoid liability, and (3) Better understand and market your product. The emphasis on safety and efficacy highlighted across our findings was also embedded in participant comments on these three themes — participants linked protecting their reputations and liability with demonstrating adequate product safety and efficacy (see Table 4). Researchers also articulated the RI motivation of Better understand and market your product in terms of safety and efficacy, as described by one industry researcher: “To really understand your product and its points of differentiation against the competition you do a lot of research that’s not in that regulatory framework context. And so, understanding your competitive advantage a lot of times will include this product is more effective and/or safer, and/or better in these ways.” This researcher, then, sees RI as aligning with the need to conduct research beyond what is required by regulations and recognizes how this can support finding one’s competitive advantage.
Finally, two of the other motivations that researchers mentioned — Responsible innovation aligns with the mission of academic discipline and Research integrity and ethics — show that some researchers view RI as aligning with the general norms of producing high quality research and products of innovation. For example, one academic researcher discussed the motivations for pursuing responsible nano-innovation in the context of their environmental engineering academic discipline: “The key motivation if you're an environmental engineer is that you don't want to do any harm. You want to make sure that sustainability is at the forefront of all discovery and you want to avoid the unintended consequences from a change from the status quo.” This researcher sees both the environmental engineering discipline and RI as being about innovation that is sustainable and that avoids unintended consequences. Another academic researcher described their motivation for RI in terms of general research integrity and ethics: “We know, as a scientist, that research integrity, ethics, that’s a foundation.”
Key RI Principles Across Researcher RI Definitions, Practices, and Motivations
In our analysis, we also looked across the emergent themes from nano-agrifood researcher RI definitions, practices, and motivations to examine whether and how four key RI principles (i.e., anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity, and responsiveness) were present. Here we describe how each RI principle emerged across researcher RI definitions, practices, and motivations.
Anticipation. Anticipation — simply defined as considering the future impacts and implications of innovation  — was an essential component of researcher discussions of RI definitions, practices, and motivations, although it was primarily envisioned through the lens of product safety, efficacy, and efficiency. In reviewing the themes relating to anticipation, we found that they all concerned product safety, efficacy, and efficiency (Table 5). Table 5 also shows that the number of themes relating to anticipation (and in this instance, product safety, efficacy, and efficiency) far outnumbered those having to do with other key principles of RI. Furthermore, as shown within Table 1-4, the most frequently mentioned themes by researchers all had to do with safety, efficacy, and efficiency. While the presence of product safety, efficacy, and efficiency is not surprising, the fact that it so overpowered other considerations is noteworthy. Safety, efficacy, and efficiency represent only part of anticipation (e.g., it can also include considering political, social, and economic implications of a technology), and moving past a sole focus on safety, efficacy, and efficiency in innovation governance was one of the justifications for the development of RI in the first place .
Inclusion. Inclusion — opening questions and decisions concerning innovation to inclusive dialogue  — was much less frequently mentioned across researcher RI definitions, practices, and motivations. It was present, however, in the context of the themes: Collaborate interdisciplinarily and Engage stakeholders. First, the inclusion of a diversity of types of expertise was seen as a necessary means to achieve safe, effective, and efficient products (see Collaborate interdisciplinarily in Table 3). The complexity of nanotechnologies and the systems in which they are used required an interdisciplinary approach to, as one academic researcher put it, “disclose the full picture of the product.” The second form of inclusion involved the reoccurring theme of Engage stakeholders. Within this theme, however, there were tensions surrounding who counts as a stakeholder and what ends are pursued through this stakeholder engagement. Some interviewees defined stakeholders mainly as industry and envisioned stakeholder engagement as a way to ensure that their products aligned with the interests of industry (e.g., see quote from Engage Stakeholders in Table 3), while others defined stakeholders more broadly and envisioned engagement as a way to ensure their products aligned with the public good (e.g., see quote from Engage Stakeholders in Table 1).
Reflexivity. Reflexivity — holding a mirror up to one’s motivations and assumptions [10, 25] — took two main forms across researcher RI definitions, practices, and motivations. First, reflexivity was related to inclusion, as both interdisciplinarity and stakeholder engagement were discussed as ways to reflect on one’s assumptions. As one academic researcher stated when discussing the importance of interdisciplinarity for reflecting on one’s assumptions, “Working with people from diverse backgrounds, we learn more about experiments, too. We learn more about how the questions posed may or may not accurately answer exactly what you want to. And even if it answers certain things, what are the potential flaws in that argument?” Second, reflexivity was also present in the ways researchers articulated and considered their motivations for RI. There was a tension between researcher motivations related to the public good (Improve human well-being and/or solve societal problems) and those related to the private sector (Protect reputation, Avoid liability, and Better understand and market your product). The tension arises because one can pursue the latter three motivations while being agnostic as to whether the resulting product improves well-being or solves societal problems. That is, simply pursuing a marketable product that does not cause liability or reputation concerns is not the same as pursuing products that align with broader notions of the public good. One can see this tension in the different ways that the following two researchers articulate their motivation for RI. One industry researcher who focuses on liability said: “Well, number one, you know, we all have this big problem of liability concerns. For a company that is a very huge concern… We want to put out things which are not going to be indefensible in terms of liability. That simply would be foolish.” Another industry researcher viewed their motivation for pursuing RI in a broader lens: “What can I do to help the agricultural community? What can I do to help them be better and be safer? Versus waking up every morning and watching glyphosate commercials; who's going to sue who kind of deal… It's about helping others. And I can do that with nanotechnology. I can't do it with a chemical.”
Responsiveness. Responsiveness — changing the direction of innovation based on stakeholder and public values and RI activities [10, 25] — was frequently present in researcher RI definitions, practices, and motivations, but mainly in implicit ways. For example, when researchers discussed the importance of conducting studies on product safety, efficacy, and efficiency, it was implied that the point was to make products more safe, effective, and efficient. Inclusion, in terms of interdisciplinarity and stakeholder engagement, was also seen as important for informing nano-agrifood innovation (see Inclusion above). Responsiveness emerged more explicitly in terms of public acceptability. As one academic researcher said: “When I am defining a new product or thinking about a new research project, the first thing that comes into my mind is always about feasibility and also the acceptability of the final products. We have to make sure that we encapsulate a specific compound that is publicly acceptable.” This sentiment acknowledges the importance of having a market for one’s product — i.e., not developing a product deemed publicly unacceptable. Yet, “the public” that researchers were being responsive to was framed in different ways by researchers. Some framed the public as an entity wanting safe products (e.g., that components of a nanotechnology are “food grade”) while others framed the public as a potential barrier to technology that researchers deem as desirable, as one academic researcher said: “We don't want to end up in something that is similar to GMO which is good for some applications but still people are not accepting even though it is very powerful.” Therefore, some researchers viewed the public as having legitimate concerns and other researchers viewed them as having illegitimate ones; either way, researchers thought they needed to be responsive to the public because of their potential to impact the uptake of technology.