Special Feature

doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.115 Published online 27 August 2015

Social innovation with proteomics technology

[Nature India Special Issue: Proteomics Research in India]

Vural Özdemir1,2, Edward S. Dove3 & Sanjeeva Srivastava4

Countries around the globe have embraced knowledge-based innovation as a strategy for smart growth in the past couple of decades. However, India has achieved something that many countries are still struggling to – sustained investments in national technology policy and a sharp focus on biotech and proteomics1, 2, 3, 4.

This has paid off handsomely, as evident through landmark studies by a Bangalore-based team, which was among three global groups involved in the “Human Proteome Draft”, part of the Human Proteome Project (HPP) that debuted in 20105. Indian scientists have also made significant contribution to the recently published tissue-based map of the human proteome3.

These scientific victories – a culmination of years of painstaking work – deserve unmitigated celebration. However, it would be a mistake to rest on the laurels since the past is not a guarantor of future success when it comes to disruptive innovation in life sciences and medicine6, 7.The challenge is to lay out science and technology innovation strategies to ensure India capitalises on the current opportunities emergent from the HPP.

Steering proteomics towards innovation

The ‘push’ strategy of innovation

How does one steer a technology such as proteomics into innovative applications? Vannevar Bush’s much-cited report ‘Science, The Endless Frontier’ has come to define not only past but also current perceptions of translational research8. This policy suggests, however, a linear, narrow and one-way technology transfer from the laboratory to field applications. It also embodies a romanticised vision of science as pure and apolitical, primarily occurring within the confines of the laboratory isolated from society, and having invariably benevolent outcomes.

At its core, Bush’s innovation model proposed ‘science push’ and grossly overlooked the needs, values and expertise of user communities to innovate (‘science pull’). However, regular day-to-day science is, and always has been, inherently political. It faces multiple possible future(s), encompassing both benevolent and uncertain societal outcomes6, 9, 10. Unfortunately, user communities such as patients, clinicians and citizens continue to be neglected when biomedical innovation is designed in the laboratory isolated from society. This results in significant research waste that can otherwise be avoided. For example, out of nearly US$ 200 billion spent annually on biomedical research globally, up to 85% is estimated as inefficient11, 12.The key reasons for research waste have been poor targeting, i.e. finding the right answers for the wrong questions, where research findings have little or no relevance for the communities meant to benefit from it.

The ‘pull’ strategy of innovation

The social and economic benefits of science, especially biotechnology, demand more than a marriage of biology and technology. Innovations in part emerge out of the needs of the users. As such, users should be a part of the development process. Notably, ‘lead-users’, whose needs are well beyond those of the average users, have a distinct role to play. This elite group pushes the boundaries of available products, status quo technology design and manufacturing processes, as they begin innovating on their own. Notable examples include mountain bicycles pioneered by cycling enthusiasts, online mobile banking in Africa and emerging markets, and patients with rare diseases who learned to come up with new or improved treatments for their conditions13,14.

In fact, these days many industrial innovators capitalise on this lead-user or open innovation concept, building new forward-looking enterprises. One example is the Google Ireland Dublin Innovation Campus that employs user-driven innovation approaches, bringing together technical experts and users.

Understanding the ‘social life’ of proteins

To sustain its current global leadership in proteomics, India must rethink the existing translational research model that rests primarily on a ‘science push’ factor inefficiently delivering users’ needs11. India needs a new strategy to cultivate disruptive innovations centered on social innovation as proteomics technology begins to grow from discovery science to societal applications.

Social innovation is a relatively new concept. It has roots in, and yet is distinct from, a variety of emergent scientific practices such as open innovation, lead-user innovation, nested knowledge co-production, and distributed innovation. Social innovation brings together the previously isolated strategies and factors of science push and science pull. However, social innovation is more than joining forces of these two innovation strategies – the innovation actors and day-to-day tactics of creative co-production are fluid and interchangeable in the case of social innovation. The sharp demarcation between designers and users does not exist anymore. Users can become designers and designers can empathise with users’ priorities to intelligently and responsibly steer the research and product development trajectory between lab and society. This trajectory permits a two-way exchange of expertise. 

Innovators must ask both ‘on-frame’ and ‘in-frame’ questions at the intersection of technology and society. In-frame questions are utilitarian and enable a technology and its transfer to products. Though important, they are only a small subset of the numerous societal and policy relevant questions worth contemplating at this early stage. Yet, contracting out these questions entirely to ethicists, social scientists or humanists will neither suffice nor serve the concept of social innovation well15, 16, 17.

On-frame questions, on the other hand, would address more deeply rooted and fundamental sociological questions such as: Are there alternatives to proteomics technology? What are the opportunity costs of investing in technology A versus technology B? Should we single-mindedly approve the innovation acceleration discourses a priori and endorse new technologies without thinking of their broader impacts? Should we also not pay due attention to decelerate the innovation trajectory when/if the broader technology impacts suggest unsustainable futures and adverse societal impacts? Importantly, who should govern and regulate the conduct of ethicists, social scientists and those who are entrusted to look after societal development of proteomics applications?

Proteins deserve a social life. This can be achieved by in-frame and on-frame societal questions posed in tandem that can best serve the proteomics innovation ecosystem by creating nested governance structures18, 19, 20. Proteomics is an ideal case for social innovation given India’s current worldwide lead, large population with diverse cultures and needs, and the infrastructure in proteomics technology built over the past decade by a consistent and supportive national innovation policy21, 22

1Faculty of Communications and the Department of Industrial Engineering, Office of the President, International Technology and Innovation Policy, Gaziantep University, Gaziantep, Turkey (vural.ozdemir@alumni.utoronto.ca). 2Amrita School of Biotechnology, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Kollam, Kerala, India. 3J. Kenyon Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and the Law, University of Edinburgh School of Law, Edinburgh, United Kingdom (edward.dove@ed.ac.uk). 4Proteomics Laboratory, Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mumbai, India (sanjeeva@iitb.ac.in).


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