Science and technology policies in many nations are placing new pressures on laboratories to address broader societal dimensions of their work in ways that have the potential to influence the content of science and engineering activities. Despite longstanding calls for collaborations between natural and human scientists to achieve this goal, neither the capacity of laboratories to respond to such pressures nor the role that interdisciplinary collaborations may play in enhancing responsiveness is well understood or empirically supported. It is crucial to overcome these limitations in order to design, implement, and assess effective programs aimed at responsible innovation.

This project co-funded by Science, Technology & Society; Biology and Society; Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Society; Science of Science and Innovation Policy; and Office of International Science and Engineering involves a coordinated set of twenty laboratory engagement studies to assess and compare the varying pressures on and capacities for laboratories to integrate broader societal considerations into their work. Ten doctoral students each conduct two paired laboratory studies that extend more traditional ethnographies by engaging researchers in semi-structured interactions designed to enhance reflection upon research decisions in light of broader considerations.

The objectives of the STIR project as a whole, as well as each paired study, are: to identify and compare external expectations and demands for laboratories to engage in responsible innovation; assess and compare the current responsiveness of laboratory practices to these pressures; and investigate and compare how interdisciplinary collaborations may assist in elucidating, enhancing, or stimulating responsiveness.

Students base their studies on a protocol developed by PI Fisher during a previous thirty-three month laboratory engagement study. This study provides preliminary evidence that such activities as proposed here enable laboratory work to become more sensitive to its potential societal implications, without compromising laboratory research, education, or strategic goals. The STIR project investigates whether these results are applicable across a diverse and globally distributed range of labs and in a less time and labor-intensive manner.

Project Report

Erik Fisher, Principal Investigator To strengthen connections between science and society, government policies around the world are seeking to better align technological development with social concerns. These policies place new pressures on researchers to take societal concerns and values more explicitly into account. Scientists and engineers, however, often have little experience integrating social and ethical considerations directly into their work, especially in an explicit and systematic manner. Many understandably view this as an administrative burden at best and a hindrance to scientific progress at worst. Despite longstanding calls for collaborations between natural and social scientists to help make science more responsive to social concerns, neither the capacities of laboratories to respond to such concerns nor the role that interdisciplinary collaborations may play in enhancing this responsiveness is well understood. In an attempt to identify the conditions under which the inclusion of a humanist or social scientist on a research team leads to productive interactions, the Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR) project coordinated 30 integration studies in laboratories located in 13 countries across three continents. Labs worked on nanotechnology, synthetic biology, neuroscience, and other emerging areas of science and engineering. STIR investigated the empirical possibility and policy utility of socio-technical integration, ultimately in order to help develop a sound basis for the design and assessment of effective integrative efforts. Each of the 30 integration studies pursued collaborative inquiry between social scientists and lab researchers. Ideally, each study lasted 12 weeks, the social scientist became "embedded" in the lab, and the collaborative interactions were structured by a decision protocol. The decision protocol guided the interdisciplinary collaborators through a series of questions designed to identify opportunities for socio-technical integration and possibilities for responding to them. Rather than focusing on pre-determined ethical topics, inquiry focused on decision points in the research process, enabling collaborators to explore relationships between scientific activities and broader societal questions. For instance, dialogues often revolved around research goals, problems being encountered, what researchers could do differently, and whom the research might impact. The inquiries were meant to explore laboratory capacities for social responsiveness, and it was left to the discretion of the laboratory researchers whether or not to implement any resulting considerations and changes. Nearly all the studies (93%) found that participating lab researchers came to see their work differently and to think in new ways about the societal context of their work. Most studies (83%) also documented enhanced deliberation on values, and some studies (66%) documented practical adjustments to lab procedures and research directions. The social scientists were also free to experiment with the protocol. Most chose to follow it, although some chose not to do so, or to employ alternative methods. In the end, 11 of the studies frequently used the decision protocol to structure collaborations, 11 used it infrequently in this way, and 8 did not use it in this way. In those studies that used the protocol to structure collaborations, lab researchers were much more likely to voluntarily reflect on their research and to accordingly adjust research practices. More specifically, 95% of these studies recorded deliberations about societal dimensions of research that correlated to the interdisciplinary interactions and 90% of them recorded adjustments to research practices that correlated to the interactions. By contrast, only 50% of the studies that did not use the protocol in this way recorded such deliberations, and none recorded any such adjustments to research practice. Most strikingly, all of the studies (100%) that frequently used the protocol to structure collaborations recorded adjustments to research practice. Not only did the interdisciplinary collaborations support increased responsiveness of the science to societal concerns, they also led to increased research efficiency and creativity as well. For example, in one laboratory researchers came up with a new way to approach a previously failed experiment, and in another they reduced a treatment process by nearly 15 hours. Laboratory researchers frequently offered favorable assessments of the collaborations. For instance, one lab scientist suggested that collaborative inquiry could be integrated "in each and every Ph.D. project." STIR project results demonstrate that efforts to enhance scientific creativity and societal responsiveness can be mutually reinforcing. They suggest that integration policies should support regular, structured, and non-prescriptive interactions between laboratory scientists and embedded social scientists that focus on concrete research activities and that allow collaborative inquiry to deepen and the results to unfold over time. Further research is needed to adapt socio-technical integration techniques to a number of practical decision-making contexts, including areas of professional practice and expert judgment that take place outside the laboratory. STIR Project website:

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Application #
Program Officer
Frederick M Kronz
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Arizona State University
United States
Zip Code