NSF Ethics Education Requirements

Marshall Thomsen

The National Science Foundation's implementation of the ethics component of the America COMPETES Act (America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act, 2007) means that many in the field of physics will need to take a look at formal training in ethics and responsible conduct of research rather than relying on informal mechanisms, as has been common practice up to this point. The implementation of this legislative requirement is now underway: "Effective January 4, 2010, NSF will require that, at the time of proposal submission to NSF, a proposing institution's Authorized Organizational Representative certify that the institution has a plan to provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers who will be supported by NSF to conduct research." [1] While some will no doubt view this new requirement as a waste of time and a bureaucratic exercise, I believe that we should look at it as an opportunity to strengthen our community.

I do not believe that the physics community is in an ethical crisis, nor will I exploit recent incidents to argue we need to re-set our moral compass. However, survey and anecdotal evidence suggest that there is room for improvement in the ethical climate in physics [2]. Discussion throughout the physics community will help clarify the underlying issues.

Consider the Millikan Oil Drop experiment. There has been much discussion about a statement in one of Millikan's papers in which he claims to have published all of his results during a certain time span, not just a select few [3]. One can easily find, without much effort, authors who argue that Millikan was guilty of fraud, was a well-trained scientist, and everything in between [4, 5]. However, if we focus on trying Millikan in absentia, we miss the real value of this case.

The oil drop experiment is not only a landmark for physics but one that a significant portion of physics undergraduates perform, albeit with some modifications from the original. Having access to information from Millikan's original lab books and the publications that resulted provides a natural opening for discussing issues such as what is meant by data, what data we can present, what data we are obligated to present, and so forth. For instance, when one records a number in a lab notebook, does that elevate that number to the level of a piece of data? If data are the result of following a pre-determined protocol for acquiring numbers, then numbers that are written in the lab book that were not generated by that protocol are not data. After the students come to recognize that data are more than just numbers, the discussion can move to when it is permissible to exclude a portion of the data from analysis or reported results. Carrying out this discussion in the context of an experiment the students themselves may have performed helps to ground it in reality. When we examine the Millikan case from this perspective, we get at the very heart of what we mean by scientific experimentation. We strengthen our profession through ethics education by deliberately engaging scientists-in-training in this discussion of the nature of science.

Evolving regulations provide another reason we owe it to our students to provide instruction on the responsible conduct of research (RCR). I would wager that many students do not appreciate the consequences of misconduct when they are working on a federally funded project. Are they aware that if they fabricate or falsify even a "small amount" of data in a professional presentation associated with a federally funded project, they cannot get off with just a slap on the wrist? Federal regulations do not permit the research advisor or department to treat the infraction in-house. Suspected misconduct must be reported to the institution's integrity officer who may then launch an inquiry and, if the evidence warrants, a full investigation. In the event the student is found guilty of misconduct, he or she will likely be debarred from working on federally sponsored research projects for several years, making completion of graduate school at any institution problematic.

Taking ethical issues seriously also strengthens our profession by cultivating public confidence in our research. This confidence in turn not only helps maintain funding for research but also makes it more likely our advice on technical issues will be taken seriously. Our responsibility as a community to provide such advice is itself an ethical issue. While we cannot be experts in all technological issues of pressing importance, each of us can develop basic familiarity with some issues. This familiarity should be as much a requirement of membership in the physics community as basic familiarity with some political issues should be an expectation for citizenship in our national community.

For instance, it is essential to the effective use of public resources that there be a common understanding regarding possible harmful effects of 60 Hz radiation; there is no known physical mechanism to suggest that the normal exposure we receive from this radiation on a daily basis could impact our health. Our colleagues in the life sciences would add that, with the possible exception of childhood leukemia where there may be a weak link, the overwhelming epidemiological evidence indicates that this radiation does not pose measurable harm [6]. Thus, our society should focus its prevention resources on other, more pressing problems.Although RCR is not generally taken to include these science and society issues, helping our students appreciate them is essential to the health of both our profession and our society, and is part of a broader training in professional ethics.

What would RCR education for a physicist look like? Many universities are relying on modules developed by the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (citiprogram.org). These modules provide a general discussion of key areas in RCR education. The original modules were developed with the life sciences in mind, but there have been some modifications made to produce a parallel set directed at the physical sciences. However, the life science influence is still quite apparent in this set. For instance, the module on authorship and publication refers to standards associated with biomedical journals only. It is important that generic material on scientific ethics be supplemented with additional material of direct relevance to physicists.

RCR education for a physicist is not complete without covering relevant standards within our own community, specifically, the APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct and related statements. An introduction to publication standards developed by key journals such as Physical Review would also be appropriate. There are case studies with discussion posted on the APS website. Finally, there are numerous articles in publications within our community (such as this newsletter and Physics Today) that are of direct relevance to the responsible conduct of physics research [7].

There needs to be some form of assessment for an educational program to be complete. Assessment in the CITI modules is limited to multiple choice questions, and those are not always very closely tied to the learning objectives stated at the outset of the module. A more relevant assessment would have the student demonstrate the ability to apply physics community standards to a less than trivial case. The form of the assessment could be an essay, participation in a discussion, or presentation of a seminar. This need not be a burdensome task: a ten minute discussion with a student is likely to reveal a lot more about them than their performance on a handful of multiple choice questions.

As we work with NSF and our universities to implement the directives of America COMPETES, I hope we take this opportunity to begin meaningful discussion of ethical issues in physics. We can do so not out of a sense that our community is in desperate need of reformation and that we have a lot to be embarrassed about, but rather out of a conviction that we have the opportunity to strengthen both our community and society at large. We should not settle for generic approaches designed to accommodate all forms of NSF-sponsored research within our university communities. Instead, we should be assertive in modifying the plans to accommodate the needs and interests of our own students so that RCR education is not just a bureaucratic requirement but a true educational experience.

[1] Federal Register, Volume 74, Number 160 Notices pp. 42126-42128 (August 20, 2009).

[2] Kate Kirby and Frances A. Houle, "Ethics and the Welfare of the Physics Profession." Physics Today, Volume 57 Issue 11 pp. 42-46 (November 2004). See also letters to the editor in Physics Today, Volume 58 Issue 7, pp. 12-17 (July 2005).

[3] R. A. Millikan. "On The Elementary Electrical Charge and the Avogadro Constant," Physical Review, 2(2), 109-143 (1913).

[4] William Broad and Nicholas Wade. Betrayers of the Truth (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1983).

[5] David Goodstein. "In Defense of Robert Andrews Millikan." Engineering and Science, Volume 63Issue 4 pp. 30-38 (2000).

[6] Electric and Magnetic Fields Associated With the Use of Electric Power. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (June 2002).

[7] For an annotated bibliography, see http://www.physics.emich.edu/mthomsen/ethics/eiphome.htm.

Marshall Thomsen
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Eastern Michigan University
(734) 487-8794

These contributions haven not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.