National Center for Professional and Research Ethics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
MICHAEL C. LOUI
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Over the last two decades, colleges and universities in the United States have significantly increased the formal ethics instruction they provide in science and engineering. For the sciences, the impetus came from two federal mandates. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began requiring instruction in responsible conduct of research for NIH trainees. In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) began requiring instruction in the “responsible and ethical conduct of research” for all undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars supported on NSF grants awarded in 2010 and later. For engineering, the impetus for ethics education started in 1997, when ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) adopted Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000) for accrediting engineering programs (ABET 2011). EC2000 required graduates to demonstrate “an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility.” Although ABET criteria had by 1985 included “an understanding of the ethical characteristics of the engineering profession” (Harris et al. 2005), EC2000 added assessment of student outcomes in professional ethics as well as other outcomes in engineering education.
Today, academic programs in science and engineering have incorporated instruction in ethics. In this they resemble programs in medicine and law, although instruction in science and engineering ethics may begin in undergraduate programs. Medical and law schools socialize students into their professions’ values and responsibilities. Ethics instruction in these schools covers professional obligations that go well beyond ordinary moral obligations of honesty and fairness. For example, law students learn that they must disclose potential conflicts of interest when they engage clients, and they learn the boundaries and rules of attorney-client privilege and how to handle client funds.
Similarly, science and engineering programs socialize students into the values of scientists and engineers as well as their obligations in the conduct of scientific research and in the practice
of engineering. The values of science include commitments to objectivity and truth. The values of engineering include commitments to safety and efficiency. While everyone has an obligation to avoid endangering other people, engineers have a special obligation to promote the “safety, health, and welfare of the public,” as stated in the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE 2013). Junior scientists learn the special obligations of researchers. For example, when a manuscript is submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, the reviewers must keep the contents of the manuscript confidential—they must not share the manuscript’s ideas with others.
In addition to teaching the special obligations of scientists and engineers, ethics instruction can prepare students for challenges that might arise in their professional lives. Ethics education programs typically help students develop the skills to recognize ethical problems, to reason about conflicts between important values, and to evaluate possible actions to address those problems. For example, students can learn how to negotiate practical solutions to disputes over authorship and intellectual property.
Beyond preparing practitioners for their specific professional obligations, medicine, law, science, and engineering all recognize that their practitioners have the power to affect the lives of many people in significant ways. An engineer’s design decision can determine whether an automobile passenger survives an accident. A scientist’s report can influence the development of public health policies or the drafting of environmental regulations. A lawyer’s contract can change the ability of a company to hire and retain employees. A surgeon’s skill can affect whether a patient lives or dies. Professionals who have such great power should understand that they also have great responsibilities. Physicians are responsible for the health of their patients. Engineers are responsible for the safety of the devices and systems that they design. Scientists and other researchers are responsible for the integrity and trustworthiness of their reports of their work, because others both within and outside the research community rely on the accuracy of the reports to build on their results. In short, education programs for future physicians, lawyers, scientists, and engineers should help students learn their professional and ethical responsibilities.
Instructors and administrators have struggled to meet federal mandates and accreditation requirements for ethics education in science and engineering. Technical requirements in the curricula crowd out time for ethics discussions. Demands for publication, research funding, disciplinary teaching, and professional service leave faculty members with little time or incentive to master the teaching of ethics in science and engineering, and few science and engineering professors have felt comfortable teaching about such ethical issues. They sometimes have sought help from experts in other academic fields, particularly philosophers, to collaborate in teaching science and engineering ethics. Ethics education should not be conducted solely by persons who do not know the professional standards of scientific research and engineering practice, however.
To assist faculty and administrators who plan and deliver ethics education programs in science and engineering, the Online Ethics Center of the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society (CEES) at the National Academy of Engineering provides access to literature and information, case studies and references, and discussion groups on ethics in engineering and science. Focusing on ethical problems that arise in the work of engineers and scientists, it serves practitioners, educators and students, and individuals interested in professional and research ethics. The Center serves those who are promoting learning and advancing the understanding of responsible research and practice in engineering.
The National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE), founded in 2010 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, strives to create communities of responsible
research and professional practice. At NCPRE instruction in professional and research ethics is considered an essential aspect of career development for emerging professionals as well as practicing scholars, scientists, and engineers. NCPRE’s centerpiece project is Ethics CORE, a national online ethics resource center that was initiated with funding from the National Science Foundation.
In December 2012, CEES and NCPRE collaborated on a workshop on Practical Guidance on Science and Engineering Ethics Education for Instructors and Administrators. Supported by the National Science Foundation (grant SES 1045412), the workshop sought answers to the following key questions: What goals are appropriate for ethics education programs in science and engineering? Should these programs cover issues of social policy in addition to issues of individual responsibility? How should ethics be taught? How can institutions support ethics programs and assess their effectiveness? The workshop focused on four key areas:
• goals and objectives for ethics instruction,
• instructional assessment,
• institutional and research cultures, and
• development of guidance checklists for instructors and administrators.
The workshop organizers commissioned papers from leading experts to summarize current research knowledge in these areas. At the workshop, these experts presented their papers, which informed the discussions among the participants. This report presents the edited papers and a summary of the discussions at the workshop.
Ethics CORE and the Online Ethics Center are designed to support faculty and administrators by collecting and providing access to resources such as teaching materials and best practices. In addition to these resources, we hope this workshop report will help readers implement effective ethics education programs in science and engineering.
ABET. 2011. History. Available at the ABET website: www.abet.org/History/; accessed June 11, 2013.
Harris CE, Pritchard MS, Rabins MJ. 2005. Engineering ethics: Overview. In: Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, ed. C. Mitcham. Detroit: Thomson Gale. Pp. 625–632.
NIH (National Institutes of Health). 1992. Reminder and update: Requirement for instruction in the responsible conduct of research in national research service award institutional training grants. NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts 21(43).
NSF (National Science Foundation). 2009. NSF’s Implementation of Section 7009 of the America COMPETES Act. Federal Register 74(160). Available online at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/E9-19930.htm; accessed June 11, 2013.
NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers). 2013. NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers. Available online at www.nspe.org/Ethics/CodeofEthics/index.html; accessed June 11, 2013.