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Ethics in Science and Engineering:
Redefining Tools and Resources

October 23, 2009
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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WORKSHOP REPORT

The enactment of new rules by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which require research universities to develop training, education and mentoring in ethics and responsible conduct of research provide an occasion to reassess the traditional boundaries and definitions of ethics and RCR education in light of contemporary science and engineering.  Moreover, an increasing array of web-based collaboration and networking tools offer possibilities to improve knowledge acquisition and sharing and to enhance learning.

With these opportunities in mind, the Ethics in Science and Engineering National Clearinghouse (ESENCe) beta site 1 project group has organized a national workshop to explore possibilities for growth and improvement in the university’s role as a locus of education and mentoring for ethics and RCR in science and engineering. The experts invited to participate in this workshop bring to bear interdisciplinary knowledge concerning the social sciences; public policy; science, technology and society; information sciences; library sciences; human computer interaction; and ethics.

We take a broad perspective on the range of effective institutional responses to the new NSF requirements and seek to explore possibilities for using digital tools as vehicles to bring a variety of materials to faculty and graduate students and to enlarge institutional capacity for mentoring, education and training. Specifically, we want to explore opportunities that lie beyond the development of standardized training and static repositories. We hope the workshop will be a catalyst to broaden the ways that researchers and decision makers define and teach ethics and RCR by identifying some of the macro ethical challenges – including social justice, globalization, cross-cultural communication, diversity, and the size and scope of big science – that traditional definitions of ethics tend to ignore.

Although a number of large, web-based resource centers for ethics in science and engineering (ESE) already serve the academy, researchers and decision makers lack an adequate empirical base with which to evaluate their use and effectiveness. The workshop will examine some of the key dimensions of these resource centers with an aim toward guiding further development.  We will explore the potential and limitations of Web 2.0 tools and applications and the utility of the Semantic Web to enhance knowledge discovery and sharing. While these are firmly established throughout the Internet with users who have developed a contributive mindset, their role and potential ethics and RCR education and mentoring are less well understood.

Several questions follow from this guiding rationale for the workshop:

  • What feasible courses of action might be crafted for institutions that will be required to certify themselves in ethics and responsible conduct of research?
  • To what extent might the new NSF requirements be used to encourage broader approaches in ethics training and socially responsible conduct of research? 
  • What do we know about how researchers and others are actually using digital tools to promote knowledge sharing in ethics and RCR?
  • What empirical studies might provide guidance in this domain?  What types of studies should be undertaken?
  • Among the wide range of tools and applications that come under the Web 2.0 heading, which have the greatest potential to promote learning and knowledge sharing in the domain of ethics in science and engineering?
  • In what way should we broaden the definitions of ethics in science and engineering to encompass greater need for diversity, social justice, globalization, and recognition of changes in the organization and conduct of research?

[1] ESENCe is being developed in response to the America COMPETES Act and new National Science Foundation (NSF) policies which will require that proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) “describe in [their] grant proposal a plan to provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers participating in the proposed research project.”

 

Funding for this project comes from the National Science Foundation through grant number 0936857. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

   
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