NWO extends research into responsible innovation

Case

NWO extends research into responsible innovation

The idea might be fantastic and the technology superb but that does not automatically guarantee a successful innovation. Take, for example, the electronic patient file that met considerable resistance from the public.

Just like the smart electricity meter, which automatically passes the meter reading on to the power company – a useful thing perhaps, but the meter fell foul of privacy laws. And can you still remember the successful protests against the CO2-storage facility in Barendrecht? The low response to the vaccination against cervical cancer? In each case the introduction went wrong; the idea took off in a completely different way than its devisors had intended. Besides a lot of wasted effort it often meant a serious financial loss as well.

MVI programme

But where exactly did the problem lie? When do highly promising innovations fail? Would things have gone differently if the producers of the smart electricity meter had paid more attention to the privacy problems in advance? The answer is probably yes. Which ethical and societal questions play role in innovations? That is the key question in the NWO programme Responsible Innovation (Dutch acronym MVI). Wouter Boon is an innovation scientist at Utrecht University. He participated in the first round of the MVI programme. ‘The vehement response from the public often comes as a surprise to the makers of innovative technology. A current example is the discussion about fracking. For a sensitive subject such as new forms of energy you cannot make far-reaching plans and then suddenly throw these at the public. Although this is obvious for innovation scientists that is not the case for everybody. So it is good that NWO explicitly devotes attention to responsible innovation.’

Rapid access

Boon did research into the accelerated introduction of medicines. For example, medicines against HIV and cancer, but also flu vaccinations. ‘Medicines that society desperately needs and for which there are no alternatives. Then if you have a substance in the laboratory that works well, you want to market it as quickly as possible. But a rapid introduction also means less time for tests. So with an accelerated introduction you always need to strike a balance between rapid access and safety. In this context we investigated the best way to monitor the efficacy and safety of medicines following their introduction to the market.’ The timing of Boon's research was perfect. While he was doing the research, the Mexican flu epidemic occurred. A fierce discussion ensued about the safety of the vaccine. We could not have hoped for a more beautiful example from the field.’

Public support

Jeroen van den Hoven is Professor of Ethics at Delft University of Technology and chair of the MVI programme committee (among other things this committee is responsible for the scientific supervision of the programme). Within the programme, he investigated innovations for developing countries and the safety risks of new technology. ‘You could call the MVI programme “ethics in practice”. It links societal themes with technology and innovations. Large companies including DSM, Shell and Friesland Campina are collaborating in the programme. This demonstrates that responsible innovation is not something “vague for philosophers”, but rather an important theme, also for industry.’ After all, public support is vital for companies. They want to develop products that society is waiting for. Furthermore there is public interest in production methods; inappropriate practices can lead to reputation damage.

People praise innovation until it gets too close for comfort
- Jeroen van den Hoven

Van den Hoven emphasises that although responsible innovation might seem difficult at first, it can pay itself back. ‘Take Germany, for example, where public resistance towards atomic energy was always considerable. Now the country is a leader in the field of sustainable energy. The same is true for privacy. Due to the strict legislation, developers in Europe must ensure that privacy is well protected in ICT applications. Now the rest of the world is starting to experience it as a problem as well and people are therefore coming to Europe to purchase that knowledge.’ A researcher who submits a proposal in the MVI programme, does not do that alone. He brings a valorisation panel with him that he has put together himself; a group of people with practical experience. Van den Hoven: ‘They contribute ideas to the research question. After that they also have a coaching role and pose questions. They ensure that the researchers do not become detached from reality.’

Contacts are valuable

Boon confirms the importance of that: ‘They pose good questions and give practical tips. For example, our valorisation panel drew our attention to examples of medicines where dilemmas about the introduction played a role.’ He lists a wide range of organisations who contributed ideas to his research: patient associations, the Netherlands Pharmacovigilance Centre Lareb, the Medicines Evaluation Board, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. ‘The research yielded scientific publications, which is a requirement for us as university researchers. But the contacts made are just as valuable. For example, we have presented the results to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. In this way your research can make real contributions to government policy.’ Armand Voorschuur from Nefarma was also a member of Boon's panel. Nefarma is the industry association for pharmaceutical companies focussing on the research and development of innovative medicines. ‘Innovations in healthcare are not just about new medicines though. Other examples are new services for doctors and patients, such as smart systems to help people make sure they take their medicines.’ Innovations are often difficult to implement in healthcare, says Voorschuur. ‘People are cautious, and anxiety for new things often slows down the innovation. But vested interests also play a role. I am therefore very interested in research into healthcare innovation. And then the outcomes from such research must also be used in practice.’ That was one of the reasons why Nefarma participated in Boon's research: ‘The approval of medicines is tightly governed by legislation. Introducing a new medicine has now become so expensive that in the longer term this system no longer appears to be viable. So it is good to explore if other approaches are possible. One of the questions in that case is how you can monitor medicines carefully after an accelerated market introduction.’

Connections with the top sectors

The MVI programme was so successful that it is now serving as a model in Europe. Within Horizon2020, the new European programme for research and innovation, money is also being made available for research into responsible innovation. Van den Hoven: ‘It is a strongly emerging research field, and with the MVI programme NWO was a trailblazer. It would have been a shame if there had been no follow-up to the programme.’ In the first round the collaboration with six government ministries took centre stage and now MVI will link up with the top sectors. In the new round there will also be attention for more fundamental questions. Van den Hoven: ‘Take, for example, the NIMBY problem that many innovations suffer from. NIMBY is the acronym for not in my back yard. People praise innovation until it gets too close for comfort. That is the case for wind turbines, CO2 storage and many other cases. Then gaining a general impression about how to deal with NIMBY problems is definitely worthwhile.’ Because simply ignoring the problem is not an option; the list of ‘nice idea, badly implemented’ is already long enough.

Further information


  • Author: Anouck Vrouwe
  • Photography: Hollandse Hoogte