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Summary and Conclusions

Table of Contents:

I extract several themes and lessons from my career, which I believe have general applicability:

  • • Serendipity and opportunism—taking advantage of (lucky) circumstances, but also the ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, and press forward on extracurricular activities that present new and related options—is important.
  • • Perseverance and finding allies (forming alliances) among individuals in a variety of organizations and in fields other than philosophy is a requirement.

• Outcomes from my career might have been strengthened by more attention to alliance building—locally, nationally, and internationally—and to encouraging and drawing forth advice even when its merit may not be evident.

Looking for alliances and advice are not capabilities to which philosophical education has traditionally paid much attention, so it might be worthwhile to single these attributes out for a bit of reflection. In fact, neither education nor employment has emphasized the need to develop these attributes much beyond a manner that focuses on self-interest. The priorities of individuals and organizations are generally narrowly focused. Thus, in both organizations in which I worked, the priority was on benefits to STEM (which is a step beyond selfinterest in itself). Creating links to ethics needs to be placed in that context to have a place on the agenda. Making links to for-profit organizations was not easy even when just limited to connections to STEM, much less when making the additional ethics connection. Identifying exactly those issues and circumstances where alliances and advice might prove fruitful is not easy. Below, I describe several occasions when those connections happened.

Fieldwork in philosophy can involve the identification and analysis of individual and organizational behaviors as well as contributions in the non-philosophical literature. It can also identify primarily ideological commitments and ethical predispositions, as well as ontological and epistemological assumptions. Doing fieldwork thus makes possible certain conceptual and practical discoveries in philosophy. On the conceptual side, the relatively new field of STS plays an important bridging role for philosophers who are interested in ethics and STEM, as its intellectual focuses can be congenial to philosophy while its empiricism provides useful grounding.

This leads to the practical question of whether and how to encourage connections between the professional societies that have members from the field of philosophy. The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), Philosophy of Science Association (PSA), Society for the History of Technology' (SHOT), History of Science Society (HSS), Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE), and American Philosophical Association (APA) could all benefit their members and themselves by finding ways to cross-pollinate through an emphasis on empirical and conceptual work on ethics and STEM. I have belonged to special interest groups in several of these organizations where issues of ethics and STEM were prominently discussed. The APA and PSA might consider having one of their publications devote an issue or a section to work that members have done on these issues, which would alert their members to an area they might not otherwise pay attention to. Several of the social and behavioral science societies have relevant divisions which could reward attempts at connection. While relatively few philosophers seem to be engaged in ethics and STEM, this may change with the turn to practical, empirical philosophy.

Making connections to other societies such as the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and the AAAS could also be beneficial in the long term. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for, or the development of opportunities for, connections is mostly lacking or is framed very narrowly, as is the funding to make these connections happen.

Among practical efforts, professional societies have initiated joint activities to stimulate attention to ethics and STEM. For instance, in 2017 the NAE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) sponsored a workshop on the ethics of artificial intelligence (NAE 2017). The National Academies Government-Industry-University Roundtable sponsored several workshops on ethical aspects of scientific practice, including international aspects (NRC 2014; NAS, NAE, and IOM 2011). NASEM has long paid attention to ethics in graduate education in the U.S. and, more recently, in an international effort (IAP 2016). Additional efforts, particularly focusing on scientific misconduct and good practice, may be on the horizon. Conceptual discoveries involving the examination of value dimensions in STEM such as the complexities of risk assessment and risk management, have considerable intellectual strength; results from this work require connections between philosophy and science and engineering and the promotion of attention to ethics in STEM education. Public attention stimulated many of these efforts. Not surprisingly, there is interaction between the stimulus of public concern and the interest of scientists and engineers in improving research practice so as to address that concern.

Philosophers employed outside academe do have opportunities to benefit from field philosophy. My opportunities took shape first during a break from my graduate studies, next in employment in a federal agency, and finally as staff of an honorary membership organization of scientists and engineers. Exposure to field sites provided experiences that tested the merits of approaches and findings in the philosophical literature. NSF program support fostered the beginnings of a community of integrated and interdisciplinary research on topics of ethics in science and engineering. The NAE provides a focal point for efforts in engineering ethics to continue. Both NSF and NAE activities promote empirical approaches, for which field philosophy is a natural fit. However, it is not clear that philosophers or their professional associations have given enough attention to helping their members become engaged in this or related efforts to create a strong and vibrant field of science and engineering ethics.

The history of development of the field of science and engineering ethics indicates that scientific disciplines have emphasized ethical issues that arise in the conduct of scientific research (publication ethics, for instance) while engineers have emphasized issues arising in society (emissions cheating, for example). These differences in priorities reflect differences in the history and practice of these professions and in the perceptions of scientists and engineers about their social responsibilities (Kline 2013). Overcoming these differences will require the development and continuation of alliances and collaborations wherever possible.

While a focus on ethics in the conduct of science and engineering may involve an emphasis on what individuals should do, it often must include an examination of ethical shortcomings in scientific and engineering approaches that will take organizational attention to resolve. To push further, there is a long history of difficulty in persuading powerful interests in or affiliated with science and engineering to support ethics programs. There are various reasons for this, not least of which is a historical acceptance of science and engineering as wealth-building rather than equity-building endeavors. Those directing and implementing ethics activities in institutions such as the NSF and the NASEM are in a sensitive position, since those agencies and their leadership often justify support for their missions as promoting wealth building, while they recognize the need to address equity considerations.

One approach to addressing this problem is to recognize the need to improve science and engineering by overcoming shortcomings internal to these fields. For instance, lack of attention to broad inclusion in research populations may weaken the veracity and applicability of the findings. Another kind of ethics question arises about use of individual information from online sources, and this too challenges the ubiquitous societal commitment to innovation as a social or utilitarian good. Philosophy, working with a wide range of disciplines and social interests, can have a useful role in illuminating questions, devising methods to address them, evaluating results, and pressing ahead. Many scientists, including social and behavioral scientists and engineers, identify the early warning signals of these deficiencies and are pleased to cooperate with philosophers in considering their implications and ways to overcome them.

Good governance is necessary for identifying and resolving ethical and philosophical issues in science and engineering. Appropriate attention, oversight, and regulation from governmental agencies or leaders of social movements can promote positive effects of innovation and prevent or mitigate negative ones, while helping to assure equitable outcomes, or even outcomes that can overcome historical problems that arise from inattention to equity issues. There are opportunities for professional societies to foster these efforts.

Addressing these issues demands action from numerous individuals, groups, and organizations. One empirical orientation in philosophical work recognizes the tension between how things are and how one might desire them to be, and calls for engagement with activities that can promote movement from what is to what is worthy of being desired. It recognizes that the “we” in professional effort or the “we” in organizational affiliation is not the same as the “we” in humanity, and that there are going to be differences and conflicts within and between the various “wes.” How to move in the desired direction may be difficult to discern, much less actuate. Nonetheless, there are numerous ways to define and examine science and engineering ethics problems and thoseexaminations can benefit from interdisciplinary approaches that incorporate empirical and conceptual work. I hope that stronger collaborations between the “wes” will have the desired impact.


  • 1 The CEES home page at the NAE identifies current ethics efforts: www.nae. edu/26187.aspx. It provides information about the energy ethics and climate change projects at and
  • 2 The results from this project are available at Energy.aspx.
  • 3 The featured videos “Climate Change and Infrastructure I” and “Climate Change and Infrastructure II” can be accessed from the OEC home page:


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