Legislation Makes Ethical and Societal Issues Part of NSF Award Process

Philosophers may find new opportunities for working with scientists owing to legislation passed last year that makes how projects address their ethical and societal effects a more important factor in how the National Science Foundation (NSF) awards grants.

The Chips and Science Act became law in 2022.

In an article at Issues about the act and the history of attempts to get government agencies to incorporate ethical and societal issues into their funding decisions, David Guston (Arizona State) writes:

Section 10343 of the act, entitled “Research Ethics,” mandates that NSF engage with the “ethical and societal considerations” of the research it funds. It conveys “the sense of Congress” that “emerging areas of research have potential ethical, social, security and safety implications that might be apparent as early as the basic research stage.… [The incorporation of such considerations] into the research design and review process for Federal awards, may help mitigate potential harms before they happen.”…

By making ethical and societal considerations part of the award process, the CHIPS and Science Act envisions that researchers will address them in one of at least three ways: by articulating foreseeable risks or asserting that none exist; by describing and planning to implement social or technical means of mitigating such risks; and by including in the research collaborations partnerships that can help mitigate risk and amplify societal benefit. The act further instructs NSF to make competitive awards supporting research to assess the ethical and societal considerations of NSF’s own research and to develop and verify approaches to proactively mitigate foreseeable risks.

This turn is a historic one; until now, Congress has never called on NSF—and NSF has never tried—to fulfill [former National Academy of Science president Detlev] Bronk’s vision [“Competent social scientists should work hand-in-hand with natural scientists so that problems may be solved as they arise, and so that many of them may not arise in the first instance”] across its entire portfolio, regardless of size of investment or topic of inquiry.

Guston describes some of the means by which projects may take up the ethical and societal effects of their work, referencing as examples, among other things, the multidisciplinary centers for nanotechnology and society it funded nearly 20 years ago, in which some philosophers were involved, and the movement for public interest technology.

You can read Guston’s whole article here.

(via Zachary Pirtle)

Related: NSF Bill Emphasizes Ethics, Includes Ethics Grants

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