Computing Applications Computing ethics

The Ethics Beat

Surveying the increasing variety and nature of ethical challenges encountered by computing researchers and practitioners.
  1. Introduction
  2. Workshops
  3. Infrastructure Development
  4. Author
  5. Footnotes
ethical choice

I have assumed responsibility for the ethics column in Communications Viewpoints section. The Computing Ethics column will appear occasionally and provide an editorial focus promoting understanding and resolution of ethical issues of concern to people in the computing profession. This inaugural column has two goals: to provide information about the center I run and to briefly highlight the work of two people who have contributed to ethics in the areas of computer science and engineering.

I direct the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society (CEES, http://www.nae.edu/ethicscenter) at the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The NAE is part of The National Academies, a federally chartered membership organization that advises the U.S. on science, engineering, and medicine. The NAE launched CEES in 2007 with support from member Harry E. Bovay, Jr.; the Bovay grant provides core funding through 2011. CEES examines and helps to resolve societal and ethical issues through workshops, conferences, research, and education.

CEES manages the Online Ethics Center (OEC) at the NAE (www.onlineethics.org). OEC provides professionals and students in science and engineering with resources for understanding and addressing ethically significant problems that arise in their work. It promotes learning and advances the understanding of responsible research and practice. CEES is currently revamping the OEC with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) that began in May 2009. Site improvements will provide assistance to principal investigators and academic institutions regarding new requirements for ethics instruction in the American COMPETES Act of 2007. The People section explains how you can contribute, and you can use the Ask-Us link in that section to ask questions.

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The NSF recently provided support for CEES to hold a workshop on Ethics Education in Scientific and Engineering Research: What’s Been Learned? What Should Be Done? (See the report by that title from National Academies Press, 2009; http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12695). CEES worked with its advisory group and the National Research Council’s Division on Policy and Global Affairs and the Academies-wide Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy to develop the project.

At the meeting, participants articulated the following assumptions. Competitive and complex research environments pose increasing ethical challenges for research scientists and engineers. Interdisciplinary and international participation require crossing of cultural boundaries, and the close coupling of commerce and academia can create difficulty in recognizing the right thing to do. Gaps remain in ethics education, and it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of existing programs.

Charles Huff, Department of Psychology, St. Olaf College, has a longstanding research interest in identifying and evaluating ethical professional behavior. At the ethics education meeting he reported results of research involving numerous collaborators and sources of support. Huff’s team used interviews and documentary materials to study two types of morally exemplary individuals in computing: those oriented toward craft (for example, computer accessibility for disabled users); and those oriented toward reform (for example, computing and privacy). These types represent different moral ecologies, which are environments in which individuals can develop ethically exemplary careers. Characteristics in a "model" of ethical performance over time include "moral ecologies, individual personality, relevant skills and knowledge, and the integration of morality into the individual self."

By understanding such complexities it is possible to assess the limitations in approaches to ethics education that focus only on individual decision points. Training in the skills and knowledge necessary to address particular ethical issues in research provides important guidance for analysis of particular situations, but it cannot inoculate individuals against questionable practices. A performance approach requires the evaluation of professional ethical behavior over the course of a career, and encourages an ethics perspective that goes beyond compliance toward the development of ethical ideals. For more information see http://www.stolaf.edu/people/huff/.

Ideas emerging from the workshop include:

  • Context: Academic institutions should show they have established wide-ranging programs to stimulate and reward ethically appropriate behavior.
  • Learning: Student participation should be mandatory and a repository of information about best practices should be created with a plan for dissemination of these materials to colleges and universities.
  • Criteria for programs and activities: Successful programs involve research faculty using case studies and interactive formats supplemented with appropriate online materials.
  • Interactivity: Students have a facility for accessible and interactive online resources. Ethics-focused instructional materials must reflect this.
  • Mentoring: Science and engineering faculty and faculty with ethics education responsibilities should work together on mentoring postdoctoral fellows and graduate students at the dissertation level.
  • Evaluation: Appropriate agencies should fund a workshop to develop evaluation criteria and measures for ethics education in science and engineering curricula.
  • Social responsibility and responsible conduct of research: Support should be given to programs that creatively teach ethics and the social responsibilities of science and engineering, as well as the responsible conduct of research.

CEES is planning panels at several professional society meetings on this topic (see www.nae.edu/ethicscenter for upcoming events). Copies of the workshop report will be available at the meetings and free online at the Web site of the National Academies Press.

Another important topic examined by CEES is the relationship between engineering and social and environmental justice, and sustainability. Engineers sometimes get caught in conflicts that arise between different positive goals; for instance, when humanitarian efforts reinforce status inequalities or environmental degradation. In 2008, with partial support from NSF, CEES and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) sponsored a workshop titled "Engineering, Social Justice, and Sustainable Community Development." This workshop brought together engineers and scholars from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to consider improvements in engineering ethics, engineering practice, and engineering education. Engineering and social justice were hotly contested at the meeting, while engineering and humanitarianism, engineering and social responsibility, and engineering and environmental justice were less controversial.

Kevin Passino of the Department of Electrical Engineering at The Ohio State University participated in this workshop. He argued that educating engineers who take on volunteer work is a responsibility for engineering educators, and that fulfilling that responsibility requires the following:

  • Putting more emphasis on ethics and professionalism in the curriculum;
  • Encouraging hands-on volunteerism via student organizations; and
  • Promoting service learning through community-oriented design projects.

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Infrastructure Development

Developing the academic infrastructures that can encourage and support engineering volunteerism is a significant challenge. Passino noted that the definition of a profession has always included public service. Applied to the engineering disciplines, this definition implies that some portion of the engineering community must focus on serving society. Not every engineer must satisfy this criterion, but the profession as a whole must.

Passano provided examples of class assignments for teaching ethics and professionalism in the design of projects that meet community design constraints or address global issues, and research papers on subjects such as assessment of corporate citizenship programs and engineering volunteerism projects, evaluating codes of ethics, and so on.

To accomplish such goals, Passino argued for an infrastructure that goes beyond academia to involve professional organizations, government, and industry. He discussed as an example ECOS (Engineers for Community Service), a student-run organization at The Ohio State University that links students with sponsors of local and international service projects that promote professionalism.

For more about the ECOS-sponsored activities, see www.ecos.osu.edu for project descriptions; for more about his activities, see www.ece.osu.edu/~passino/.

Participants in the 2008 workshop on engineering and social and environmental justice, and sustainability agreed the discussion should continue at the 2010 APPE Annual Meeting, through a mini-conference titled "Engineering Towards a More Just and Sustainable World." Those interested in attending can learn more by checking the CEES or APPE Web sites.

I intend to explore ethics from many perspectives in future installments of this column and encourage and welcome any suggestions readers wish to provide.

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