The role of the NSF Broader Impacts Criterion in enhancing research ethics pedagogy

An argument for teaching ethical issues in how research impacts the rest of the world.

Erich W. Schienke, Nancy Tuana, Donald A. Brown, Kenneth J. Davis, Klaus Keller, James S. Shortle, Michelle Stickler, and Seth D. Baum, 2009. The role of the NSF Broader Impacts Criterion in enhancing research ethics pedagogy. Social Epistemology, vol. 23, no. 3-4 (July-December), pages 317-336.

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The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Second Merit Criterion, or Broader Impacts Criterion (BIC), was introduced in 1997 as the result of an earlier Congressional movement to enhance the accountability and responsibility as well as the effectiveness of federally funded projects. We demonstrate that a robust understanding and appreciation of NSF BIC argues for a broader conception of research ethics in the sciences than is currently offered in Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training. This essay advocates augmenting RCR education with training regarding broader impacts. We demonstrate that enhancing research ethics training in this way provides a more comprehensive understanding of the ethics relevant to scientific research and prepares scientists to think not only in terms of responsibly conducted science, but also of the role of science in responding to identified social needs and in adhering to principles of social justice. As universities respond to the mandate from America COMPETES to "provide training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research", we urge institutions to embrace a more adequate conception of research ethics, what we call the Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research, that addresses the full range of ethical issues relevant to scientific inquiry, including ethical issues related to the broader impacts of scientific research and practice.

Non-Technical Summary: pdf version

Background: The NSF Broader Impacts Criterion
In 1997, the United States National Science Foundation established two new criteria for the evaluation of all NSF research grant proposals. The first, intellectual merit, concerns how the research contributes to advancing knowledge. The second, broader impacts, concerns how the research impacts broader society. Though sometimes considered less important, the broader impacts criterion (BIC) requires that NSF research make some positive contribution to society. What qualifies as a positive contribution is an ethical question. This paper discusses some ethics and social justice issues in the BIC and proposes how it can and should be included in research ethics education.

Traditional Research Ethics
Research ethics concerns such questions as what research should be conducted, how it should be conducted, who should conduct it, and what should be done with the results. Traditional university research ethics initiatives, such as in Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training, focus on ethical issues in the process of conducting research, such as plagiarism, data falsification, care for research subjects, responsible authorship issues, and conflicts of interests. However, RCR does not cover the full scope of research ethics, including ethics in the BIC.

The Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research Paradigm
In response to the limitations of RCR, this paper introduces a new research ethics paradigm: Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research Proposal (EDSR). The EDSR paradigm, developed predominantly at the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University, recognizes three types of research ethics. Procedural ethics concerns ethics in the process of conducting research, as in RCR. Intrinsic ethics concerns ethics in the content of research itself, such as the use of certain equations or the representation of uncertainty. Extrinsic ethics concerns ethics in the impacts of research on society. The goals of extrinsic ethics corresponded significantly with the fundamental intent of the BIC.

Teaching the Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research
Traditional research ethics education focuses almost exclusively on RCR or procedural ethics issues. Adequately treating all ethical dimensions of scientific research thus requires a substantially different research ethics education program. The paper proposes building extrinsic ethics, such as in the BIC, into research ethics education across all disciplines. A module-based approach to EDSR education has been developed and tested at Penn State (see These ethics education modules help instructors build all dimensions research ethics into existing instructional activities.

Created 5 Sep 2009 * Updated 29 Jul 2013