At the National Science Foundation
As an independent (non-cabinet) agency of the Federal Government, NSF receives an appropriation each year through legislation from the U.S. Congress. Its appropriation in fiscal year (FY) 2017 was around S7.5 billion—about the same as it was in 2010. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for FY 2017 was about $30 billion, of which perhaps half is for the category of basic research. Going by the numbers, medical research has higher priority in the U.S. than all other civilian branches of sciences and engineering research and education (Mervis 2018).
NSF interest in science ethics began with the agency’s program officers in the biological sciences in the early 1970s. These managers recognized the potential for new developments in science and technology, particularly in the biological sciences, to raise societal questions about their trajectories and potential effects. Many thought these questions worthy of study, but wondered how to incorporate such activities into an agency devoted to scientific research and education. NSF proceeded by organizing an advisory committee to report to the NSF Director, and with the involvement of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). After several years, the advisory committee recommended that NSF establish a distinct program with its own review procedures; NEH could cooperate where it saw relevance to its mission.
The new NSF ethics program made its first awards in 1976, with an interdisciplinary review process that continues to this day. Besides soliciting reviews by mail (later e-mail), the program used an advisory panel that included a wide range of scientists (including social scientists) and engineers as well as scholars in the humanities. It provided a panel assessment and rating of the proposals the program received in response to an announcement that highlighted its interest in the wide range of ethics issues arising in STEM research and innovation.
Both the NSF History and Philosophy of Science program and the ethics program considered and supported research on a broad range of issues concerning science and technology' in society. Biologists and engineers recognized that public concerns about risk would benefit from research on, and education about, ethical and societal implications of new scientific and technological developments. This orientation can be contrasted with the concern for ethical standards in scientific practice, which became a major theme later in the 1980s, with media, public, and legislative attention to accusations of scientific fraud. Most of the projects that the NSF ethics program supported can be grouped into one or another (or both) of these thematic areas.
Many view ethics as limited to a subject area that focuses on individual infractions rather than a broad inquiry that includes domains such as, e.g., social justice and environmental ethics, and includes collective as well as individual responsibilities. My interest in science and engineering ethics began with my concern for equity and risk issues that transcend issues of good scientific practice. Although these issues can shade into each other, many scientists are more comfortable viewing problems through the lens of good practice. This lens can allow people to view ethical problems as primarily those of individuals; even professions that address them as a collective responsibility may focus on individual infractions (Hollander 2005). This orientation can leave unchallenged the dominant paradigm in U.S. science as contributing to wealth rather than to equity. Nor does it lead to challenging the control of projects by scientific experts.
The ethics program did not have a natural home in the main sections of NSF, called directorates. It was housed first in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, since that leadership was receptive to it; then it moved to the Directorate for Scientific, Technological, and International Affairs (STIA)—known informally as the Everything Else Directorate. This was a fortuitous move, since the Reagan Administration abolished the education directorate; had ethics still been in that directorate, it might have quietly disappeared. From STIA, the program moved to the Biological, Behavioral, and Social Sciences Directorate and, when that Directorate split in 1992, ethics activity moved with social and behavioral sciences programs, including History and Philosophy of Science, to the new Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, where it remains (Hollander 2015).
With the program’s focus on issues of ethics in science, technology, and society came the need to engage with scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS) who view science and engineering as socially constructed phenomena themselves incorporating ethical implications. Grouping together ethics with History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) made intellectual sense. However, an intellectual distance remains between scholars who study ethics in science and engineering and those in HPS and STS.
In all of these periods, program awards focused on on two kinds of issues: ethics and STEM in society and ethical standards for scientific and engineering conduct and practice. While these concerns overlap, the former was the predominant concern in the years until the 1990s; the latter became much more dominant after the millennium. Support for ethics research at NSF is now concentrated in the program called ER2, or Ethical and Responsible Research, with a focus on educating for ethical behavior in scientific and engineering education and in conduct for both research and practice. To some extent the ER2 priorities emphasize issues of academic and research ethics rather than more general issues about the ethical implications of scientific and technological trajectories and their effects (NSF 2019a). However, the NSF STS program literature still identifies ethics explicitly as part of its priorities with a strong emphasis on science and technology in society (NSF 2019b).
Of special interest to readers of this chapter is the role of the philosopher working with a broad range of scientists and engineers over the course of 30 years of program development, implementation, and evaluation. Generally, most successful applications to the NSF ethics programs were interdisciplinary; to meet NSF requirements, investigators often partnered with colleagues in fields other than their own, and these colleagues came from their own and other institutions. My field philosophy involved assisting investigators to contact other persons working on similar problems. It could take a while for these interactions to bear fruit, but sometimes these contacts led to ongoing collaborations.
There are several ways in which field philosophy played a role in my work at NSF. Identifying topics for research required interactions with colleagues in the sciences and engineering to examine how science and technology' shapes the world and the associated ethical issues. As noted above, it also included fostering partnerships between researchers with similar interests and concerns. A second important dimension was recognizing when public concern would buttress the arguments in support of NSF ethics programming. And a third arena required outreach to assure that relevant research and policy communities could also identify these issues.
I describe some of these kinds of efforts below. Before doing so, I will touch very briefly on the NSF decision in 1997 to adopt a “Broader Impacts” criterion in its merit review of proposals. This criterion is intended to expand NSF review beyond intellectual merit and asks applicants to address how research projects and findings will contribute to the public good. There are many ways to satisfy this criterion, and they need not include explicit attention to or examination of the ethical dimensions of the proposed work and its results. A good example would be results that contribute economic benefits that accrue to the few while setting aside equity considerations. Another straightforward example is the contribution of research to graduate education in STEM. I shall set aside further consideration of this NSF effort as outside the scope of this chapter.
In 1986, the ethics program almost vanished from the NSF budget. It remained because of concerted public effort on the part of scientists and engineers and through testimony in Congress from leaders in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This outcry resulted in the program continuing as a Foundation-wide responsibility. Managerially very difficult, this required me to develop many close connections with program managers throughout the Foundation. Later attempts at collaboration benefited from some of these previously established relationships. In an agency committed to support for cutting-edge research and associated innovation, it was natural to consider their philosophical and ethical implications and to craft program announcements that encouraged those considerations.
One of the most successful collaborative efforts resulted from the interest of NSF engineering program officers in the ethical and social implications of nanoscience, engineering, and technology. The swirl of public interest in potential safety issues surrounding the development of nanotechnology' also bolstered NSF interest in responding to those concerns. A special competition resulted in support for several centers focusing on nanotechnology in society that began in 2005.
The ethics program and the concerns of my colleagues had a strong influence on my own research interests. My research expanded from a focus on issues of informed voluntary consent to emphasize ethical questions in the relationships between science, technology', and society, particularly in the areas of agriculture, engineering, risk, and safety (Hollander 1986, 1994). This involved examination and analysis of science news and of cases that scientists and engineers reported to me. I was also able to provide overviews for a broad audience of such topics as environmental risk or mentoring (Hollander 1997, 2001).
What has led to the survival of ethics at NSF, beyond serendipity? A key' factor is the increased societal emphasis on, and recognition of, the ethical and social dimensions associated with STEM. This created receptivity to the development of ethics activities among many NSF program officers, and an interest in discussing ideas from current events. A number of well-respected scientists and engineers among the ethics program panelists were willing to make “brown bag lunch” presentations at panel meetings, and this also helped raise the program visibility and acceptance. On the other hand, some NSF program officers and upper management officials thought agency resources would be better spent directly on scientific and engineering infrastructure and research. The struggle between these two points of view continues, although media attention to issues about good scientific practice has persuaded NSF management of the need for sensitivity to public concerns about science.
Turning points within the agency came with my outreach to several NSF science and engineering and science and engineering education programs. This outreach resulted in agreements across NSF directorates to consider supporting ethics activities in the Research Experiences for Undergraduate program, which began in the early 1990s, and then establishment of the Foundation-wide Ethics Education for Scientists and Engineers which began in 2005 and continues as the CCE-STEM program today. A number of NSF programs now include ethics as a component of their solicitations for proposals, including the flagship program for interdisciplinary graduate science and engineering education which began in 1998 (TERC 2018).
Recognizing the importance of interdisciplinary and public communication led me to develop a strong connection with the AAAS and to put together interdisciplinary sessions at the AAAS annual meeting about ethics and STEM subjects of broad public interest throughout the 1980s and 1990s. NSF ethics program support for research and educational projects examining issues of risk and STEM provided numerous topics of interest to AAAS and promoted the recognition of contextual as well as constitutive values that are part of science and engineering. Constitutive values are epistemological values, such as concern to minimize sources of bias or to recognize contributions appropriately. Contextual values are societal values such as safety or consent that may not or cannot be settled by epistemological choices. Both types of values play crucial yet contested roles in judgments about risk management (Mayo and Hollander 1991).
AAAS Section X, Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering, sponsors science, technology, and society sessions each year, and most of the STEM press attends the meeting. The AAAS connection was invaluable when the NSF management scheduled the ethics program for termination in 1986. AAAS helped to lead a protest to members of Congress that involved the program’s supporters, including many scientists and engineers, who persuaded Congress to insist that NSF continue supporting ethics (Hollander 2015).
When NSF management reconsolidated ethics activity in 1994, these contacts remained useful in developing new program connections. I began working with NSF program officers to develop ethics components as part of and in conjunction with their programs—particularly the Foundation-wide Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and the Nanotechnology initiative. In the former case, the ethics program offered funds for REU programs that wanted to hold ethics activities, which gave the scientists and engineers who led these programs an incentive that more than a few accepted. For nanotechnology', the funds came from a special legislatively mandated nanoscience and engineering initiative and helped to provide support to historians and philosophers of science, engineering, and technology' as well as to STS scholars interested in studying connections between emerging technologies, ethics, and society. This support allowed new collaborations with nanoscience and technology researchers to evolve and gave these scholars critical funding for research.
I enjoyed creating connections between STS and ethics scholars and the scientists and engineers who could explain the emerging innovations in their fields. Often, this took no more than encouraging people to discuss their research with each other, at meetings or in phone calls or visits. Working together, they' could identify the particular ethical and social questions that would benefit from investigation. Enjoying these connections is an important, maybe crucial, component to doing an effective job in this field, and is especially beneficial since ethics and STEM is not a field with just one or a clear academic pathway.
The cultivation of connections seems to me critical, and an area where I should have placed greater emphasis. Philosophers seem able to recognize intellectual connections, so that is a boost to promoting the field of science and engineering ethics. Organizational connections that can encourage support for science and engineering ethics research is another story'. At NSF, which is a relatively' open organization, much can happen via development of “bottom up” connections between program officers. However, creating more support in upper management might have been possible, had I thought more carefully' and solicited help from some panelists and committee members.
It may' be wise to add a cautionary note here. The philosophical and empirical questions of who owns or is in charge of the research field of science and engineering ethics and of what the implications are of that control are worth examining and likely to benefit from philosophical as well as empirical attention. This is an ongoing struggle within organizations, whose members and components are at least sometimes not monolithic. The battle for continued support for ethics at NSF is one instance that demonstrates that truth. I hope my work at NSF helped to identify' way's in which the ethics program could flourish. Additionally, it is important that individual scientists and engineers as well as their professional organizations and employers exercise the authority' and accept responsibility' for the ethical aspects of their work. This can only happen if they have a say in the priorities for their attention, which is likely' to require consideration and negotiation from philosophers about what is philosophically interesting. For instance, the ethics of publication credit may create more interest among scientists than philosophers, but addressing that issue may be one component in a broad consideration of the role of expertise in policymaking.
After being elected to several offices in a number of professional associations, I promoted the development of an emphasis on science and engineering ethics at AAAS, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE), and the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S). One arena that I did not focus on, but that is perhaps now ripe for exploration, is the potential for more coordination and program development with organizations and research programs in biomedical ethics. For many years, biomedical and research integrity researchers have congregated at world conferences on research integrity. Initially, much of the U.S. support for these efforts came from the federal agencies that fund medical and health-related research. The World Conferences on Research Integrity are now a private non-profit foundation with a much broader purview (https://wcrif.org), and it may be time to explore the value that might be added by giving that broader orientation more visibility'. Similarly, now might be an appropriate time for federal agencies to issue a joint call for proposals focusing on research integrity' that cross all disciplinary' boundaries.