Eight Lessons to Inform the Future Oversight of Emerging Science and Technology


(Research Fortnight)

Abstract curly tendrils, photo by gremlin/Getty Images

Photo by gremlin/Getty Images

The prospect of Brexit has prompted much discussion about the future of science and technology in the UK. That makes it a good time to consider how the country might effectively capitalise on the opportunities offered by emerging scientific and technological developments.

Understanding past efforts in this area can help inform decisions about science and technology oversight in the UK. That is the aim of a recently published historical review commissioned from RAND Europe by the Wellcome Trust.

A dizzying array of innovations is being developed around the globe. These promise to solve some of society's most pressing problems, but some—such as genome editing and artificial intelligence—could also pose risks to health and the environment, and have implications for privacy, security and trust.

Effective oversight systems are therefore crucial. These could help to create public trust and minimise risks, while allowing emerging science and technology, along with the businesses that arise from them, to flourish.

We looked at case studies ranging from the advancement of agricultural technology in India in the 1960s, to branchless mobile banking in Kenya in the 2000s and present-day ‘sandboxes'—controlled environments allowing experimentation—for regulating financial technology in the UK.

These examples, whether successful or not, show how the benefits and drawbacks of innovation have been managed. From them, we drew eight lessons for the effective oversight and management of emerging science and technology.

Lesson 1: Be Balanced

One overarching aim of oversight is to balance benefits and risks. It should both promote the growth of science and technology—by, for example, supporting creators and industries—and minimise the risks to public health and safety. Oversight also needs to balance the conflicting needs and expectations of all involved, including government departments, research funders, industry, academia and the public.

Lesson 2: Be Diverse

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to oversight. The options range from legislative acts, governance and regulations, to more informal processes such as non-regulatory standards and guidelines, and civil-society movements. The most appropriate approach will depend on the cultural, political and economic context within which the science or technology is developing.

Lesson 3: Take the Initiative

Putting oversight structures and systems in place as early as possible helps to identify the main risks and uncertainties, as well as the potential benefits.

Lessons 4: Be Anticipatory

Predicting the path a science or technology will take is difficult, but it helps to try and get ahead of future challenges. An effort to foresee the implications of science and technology will make it easier to plan for unintended negative consequences in the medium to long term.

Lesson 5: Be Adaptable

Rigid oversight will struggle to keep up with the pace of change. An approach that can respond to changes and feedback helps oversight to remain effective as the science or technology, and public opinion, develops.

Lesson 6: Be Collaborative

Involving different perspectives and expertise in the oversight process helps to promote understanding about benefits and risks, build accountability and confidence, and potentially ensures more effective adoption of science and technology. Inclusive, participatory approaches to oversight help to stimulate discussion and debate.

Lesson 7: Communicate Clearly

Some methods of oversight can be complex, consisting of many procedures and involving many parties, each with their own perceptions and expectations. An approach that favours clear communication and facilitates clarity of responsibilities helps the oversight process unfold in an effective and timely manner.

Lesson 8: Engage with the Public

The public is often at the centre of oversight efforts for science and technology; its role should not be underestimated. Engaging with the public can help to promote acceptance. In turn, this could lead to increasing confidence and more effective uptake.

These lessons are not intended to be a complete solution for oversight. But we hope they can prompt debate among those interested in the development of innovations. Ultimately, the aim is to provide better stewardship of science and technology that increases the chances of delivering wider benefits to society and the economy.

Sarah Parks is a senior analyst, Camilla d'Angelo is an analyst, and Salil Gunashekar is a research leader in innovation, health and science at RAND Europe, a non-profit, nonpartisan research organisation based in Cambridge.

This commentary originally appeared on Research Fortnight on April 10, 2019. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.