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PHDINN902 Philosophy of Science, Research Ethics and Responsible Innovation

Course description for academic year 2020/2021

Contents and structure

This is a mandatory course for all PhD candidates enrolled in the PhD programme in Responsible Innovation and Regional Development. The aim of the course is for the candidates to develop a thorough understanding of research methodologies and their grounding in the philosophy and history of science, and the application of these to practical work in the field of innovation research. Furthermore, the course will conduct a critical discussion of the research tradition of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’. The course also aims to provide a solid foundation for understanding and reflecting on the ethical and legal aspects related to conducting scientific research. Finally, the course will introduce candidates to the process of innovation and regional development as a link between ethics, the research process and industrial operations. This includes an introduction to the perspective of responsible research and innovation.

In 2020, this course is being run together with the corresponding courses from the Health Sciences and ICT Ph.D. programme. The course is therefore divided into three elements, namely preparation, contact and assignment. The preparation and assignment elements are slightly different for each course, whilst the contact element is shared between all three courses.

Pedagogic overview

The basis for this course is in addressing the complexity of diversity in research, and the ways in which implicit and explicit failures to account for the diverse and multiple ways of creating good knowledge can undermine the overall scientific endeavour. The scientific endeavour has internalised a hierarchical/hegemonic perspective on the validity and rigour of scientific approaches which accords primacy to deductive, experimental approaches using quantitative methods and analyses. Given the increasing complexity of the tools available to analyse increasingly multidimensional datasets, there are today pressures both in science and politics to reduce the quality of good research to that of the mathematical complexity of analyses (being performed). At the same time, this can lead to an undermining of qualitative research even where it is as well or better equipped to deal with research subjects and can identify relationships that are invisible to quantitative approaches.

This course seeks to highlight the fragmented nature of knowledge produced by all disciplinary approaches within the scientific effort and explore the requirements of producing understanding(s) of ‘real world phenomena’. This module foregrounds the qualities and characteristics of ‘good’ qualitative social sciences research and develop a sense of self-confidence amongst students about how to undertake ‘good’ qualitative research. This module focuses on three areas

  • how to deal effectively with the challenges of creating knowledge through human subject research (the philosophy of social sciences),
  • how to deal sensitively with human agents in the research process (the ethics of social sciences),
  • how to account for the values, desires and norms of those affected by research findings (responsibility in social sciences research and innovation).

In line with the HVL Ph.D. Committee philosophy, this module seeks to introduce Ph.D. candidates to issues of philosophy/theory of science, ethics and responsibility in a way that is directly connected to the needs of their research project. The focus for this module is in challenging Ph.D. students to understand these issues in terms of their own framings, explicit and implicit, in undertaking the research activities. The module seeks to enable students to step outside of those framings, which may reflect underlying assumptions, project practicalities or path dependencies, and make explicit the choices they are making regarding their PhD projects. The students are supported to develop the self-confidence to make those choices explicit, to defend those choices, explain the alternatives, and justify why their choices are adequate in terms of undertaking high quality social sciences and health science and producing ‘good’ knowledge about their respective domains.

This module/course therefore actively makes use of participants’ heterogeneity in terms of their own beliefs about the nature of knowledge (ontology) and the creation of knowledge (epistemology) to open a broader reflective discussion within the group regarding methodology and theoretical perspectives.. The module seeks to make explicit the positive and negative effects of the ‘research gaze’, in which researchers choose to focus upon particular elements of a larger whole to generate understanding (ontological and methodological reductionisms). This also produces lacunae that can serve to hide elements of the wider whole that might actually be relevant to understanding the phenomena. The module encourages students to understand their own framings and lacunae and sensitise them to the need to seek out these “hidden elements” that may be important to their doctoral research project’s explanatory power.

Students are assessed on a reflective report (essay) in which they describe and make explicit their project’s framing and the consequences of their researcher’s gaze. In this report they identify one or more knowledge process issues that this focusing might raise for them in the course of their research, and reflect on possible ways to address that issue proactively.

Learning Outcome

Upon completion of the course, the candidate should be able to:


  • explain the main positions in the philosophy of science that are relevant to innovation research and contemporary critiques of these positions.
  • define the main methodological approaches to research in the natural and social sciences and their theoretical underpinnings.
  • distinguish the different types of ethical responsibilities that come with scientific work: professional, community, social and environmental.
  • describe the central ethical principles for research work, including problems pertaining to handling data and observations.
  • explain and identify what constitutes plagiarism and self-plagiarism.
  • describe the perspective of responsible research and innovation and its linkages to regional development.


  • identify the scientific-theoretical foundations for a specific research project.
  • apply existing research methodologies to their own research projects and critically evaluate their results in the light of eventual weaknesses or reservations concerning the theoretical foundations of these methodologies.
  • recognize the ethical problems that are relevant for a given research project, and carry out the research and publication work based on deliberations and reflections on these issues.
  • review scientific papers and reference other works correctly.

General competence

  • recognize and discuss scientific-theoretical, methodological and ethical aspects of innovation projects.
  • identify ideas and technologies in a research project that may be commercialized, and plan how to bring these to market while handling questions such as intellectual property rights, patents and copyrights.

Entry requirements


Recommended previous knowledge


Teaching methods

This module inverts a traditional approach to studying the philosophy and ethics of science in order to meaningfully address the question of why responsibility, ethics and philosophy of (social) science are such critical areas for researchers seeking to create impactful, quality knowledge that contributes to societal development and scientific advance. The course is organised into four days, which mix a series of keynote lectures, plenary seminars and small group discussion activities. Over the course of the week, the balance of the activities shifts from lectures towards more seminar and group discussion activities, to allow the participants to successfully reflect on their own gaze and the implications this brings for their own research activities as well as developing an understanding for the other researchers gaze (methodological tolerance).

The focus, or ‘prism’, chosen for this course is a single challenge relevant to the Norwegian context, namely the increasing use of assistive technologies and automation in the elderly care sector. This example has been chosen because it orients to key knowledge domains within HVL (social sciences, health science, health care, IT). This subject therefore represents a common ground in which participants can both identify their own research gaze, and in discussion with other participants, step back and reflect upon their positionality and the choices they can make in terms of their disciplinary community. This in turn provides the basis for participants to reflect on the way they apply their research gaze to their own research project, identify the limitations (and strengths) this brings, and reflect upon the future consequences that this might bring.

Day 1: Responsible Research and Innovation

The first day addresses the issue of how to account for human and societal interests in research and innovation activities, focusing on ELSA (the ethical, legal and social aspects of innovation) and RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation) perspectives on research and innovation. The increasing pace of technological change and the increasing complexity of technological platforms and systems has only made it harder for societies to shape the direction of future technological change. But that increasing pace of technical change has led to a sense within society that technology is something that is “done” to them, not that they can shape in a timely way to maximise its societal benefits. In short, the contemporary era is one in which the Collingridge Dilemma is more timely than ever before, and more relevant to understanding the ways in which research and innovation may contribute to human welfare.

The day starts with a double plenary lecture setting out theories of Responsible Research and Innovation and presenting examples from within HVL’s own research portfolio of RRI activities in practice. The keynote highlights the importance of researcher agency within responsibility practices, using Stilgoe et al.´s work to set out the importance of anticipation, reflectiveness, inclusion, and responsiveness. There is then a practical plenary seminar in which participants are invited to reflect on the issue of undertaking a piece of research in a responsible way in the context of care home innovation, and the ways in which a project could be constructed to offer the opportunities to enact responsibility repertoires. There is then a set of group discussions where students reflect on the ways in which they might themselves plan and conduct their own research to ensure that upholds these issues of responsibility. The day concludes in plenary form with each participant making a brief statement to the group concerning the role of responsibility in their own research.

Day 2: The Ethics of Human Subject Research

The second day addresses the issue of how to uphold the duties that scientists have when undertaking human subject research, to ensure that the rights of participants are paramount in considerations taken. Scientists deal with uncertainties and experiments that can potentially translate to risks and harms for research subjects, and undertaking good social sciences research means ensuring that research subject welfare always takes precedent over other research considerations. A failure to consider human dimensions (an excessively technological framing)in a problem may effectively disempower human subjects of their rights within the process, assuming their interests are served by a technological development whilst assuming their consent. This mystification of human subjects behind increasingly complicated technology development projects poses real questions for those that seek to create knowledge that can contribute to human and societal development. Moreover, the increasing demand and expectation of ‘user involvement’ in all stages of a research project (based on the idea of value for society) may pose new questions and ethical challenges in the process of producing scientific knowledge.

The day addresses these issues, beginning with a double plenary lecture setting out the fundamentals of ethical considerations in science research, and the way they apply to social and health sciences. The plenary focuses on the principles underlying ethical standards and the choices facing researchers that seek to uphold those standards rather than simply complying with protocols and legal frameworks. There is then a practical plenary seminar in which participants are invited to reflect on the ethics of a practical social care technology research, following a remote care assistant device being implemented in care homes, identifying, exploring and resolving the key ethical dilemmas that that may raise. There is then a set of group discussions in which participants present their research activities to each other, and collectively for each project identify some of the key ethical dilemmas and resolutions that each will face. The day concludes in plenary form with each participant reflecting on the ethical dilemmas they face.

Day 3: The philosophy of social and health sciences research

The third day addresses the issue of what it means to create good knowledge in the social and health sciences, and to address the elephant in the corner of the partiality and fragmentation of societal knowledge. Humans and the organisations they create to organise their lives are highly complicated and not amenable to studying exclusively in terms of their presentation, but rather consideration has to be taken of ways in which human subjects in various ways respond to and seek to shape their own environments. The object of study, and researcher belief about the nature of the object of study, shapes the ways in which scientists define which kinds of knowledge can be created about a phenomena and how that knowledge should be created. Central to social sciences is the understanding that the fragmentation and immateriality of human and social systems means that there is no one single way of creating good knowledge. The challenge is in ensuring a consistency and rigour in approach that upholds the standards of a scientific community, and social scientists have coalesced around a number of parallel approaches for defining those standards for knowability, knowledge creation and method.

The day focuses on providing students with an understanding of the philosophy of social science and its importance for taking correct, justifiable choices around the doctoral research project. The day starts with a double plenary lecture introducing the philosophy of science, the philosophy of social sciences and the key distinctions made between different positions and approaches. The lecture in particular highlights the purposes that paradigms play in enabling scientific progress by permitting consensus about scientific frames, and outlines the main scientific paradigms that are relevant to social and health sciences research. There is then a plenary seminar in which participants reflect on their own paradigmatic assumptions by setting out their own perspective on the creation of knowledge around understanding human responses to the introduction of assistive care home technologies (human as research object, as research subject, as research agent, as research participant). There are then group discussions where students are challenged on their researcher gaze in their own research project, to better understand the choices they can make in terms of their research creation practices.

The final part of the day is an evening preparation session in which participants prepare individually a poster in which they set out the key issues, dilemmas and choices they face in their own research projects in terms of ontology, epistemology and methodology. Tutors will be available to assist with this process.

Day 4: Decentring the student gaze: course paper preparation

The final day is a collective seminar in which participants present a poster back to the group as a first draft of the argument to be presented in their final module report. This poster session uses a formative peer feedback approach in which participants in the module provide structured mediates feedback to each presenter. Participants in the audience ask questions, and identify strengths, weaknesses and suggestions for improvement; presenting participants in turn have the opportunity to respond, clarify and defend their choices. Mediation is provided by the course tutors who orchestrate a constructive, formative discussion.

The final part of the day is a meeting with supervisors to provide individual feedback and to assist with the preparation of the first draft report., followed by the closing of the teaching block.

First drafts of course papers are to be submitted by 17 April; feedback will be provided within one week by supervisors, 24th of April,; a final version is to be submitted one week later, by 1st May and final grading will be provided within a reasonable time frame. Papers are graded as pass or fail.

Compulsory learning activities



This module is assessed through a single report (essay) in which participants demonstrate that they are able to reflect on their own philosophy/theory of science, their ethical standpoints and their responsibility practices, in the context of their own individual doctoral research contexts. The reports must make explicit choices in each of these areas, and motivate those choices as being adequate in terms of the relevant literatures as well as the contexts within which they are carrying out research activities. Each report sets out the doctoral research project, and then provides a critical reflection on the chosen research paradigm, the appropriate ethical considerations and the practical responsibility considerations that arise in ensure their project upholds the standards required of good research that contributes to both scientific advance and societal welfare.

The heuristic title for the report is “Ensuring my doctoral research project is a ´good´ piece of research: philosophical, ethical and responsibility reflections” although participants are free to choose a title better suited to their doctoral research context. The report should be max 3500 words in total.

Papers will be marked: a sufficient paper will reasonably fulfil the following criteria.

  • It presents the doctoral research project in a concise and novel way that allows the underlying elements and disciplinary framing to be clear to a reader
  • There is a critical reflection on the implicit choices and assumptions already made regarding philosophy of knowledge, situates the research within a particular research paradigm, justifies those choices and identifies alternatives on the basis of a reading of the relevant literature.
  • There is a critical reflection on at least one concrete ethical dilemma faced in carrying out the desired piece of research, the way that human subjects are framed by the research choices, and the necessary actions and considerations to uphold their rights as research participants.
  • There is a critical reflection on at least one of Stilgoe’s dimensions of Responsible Research and Innovation and its applicability to the research project; as a minimum, participants will anticipate how their research might potentially create wider impacts and then consider how to attune those impacts with societal desires/challenges.
  • There is a prospective conclusion which draws together unresolved elements and tensions within the paper and identifies areas where future awareness, consideration and action may be necessary to ensure the doctoral research makes both scientific and societal contributions.

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