National Science Foundation grant will help establish ethics and equity best practices for emerging forms of science and technology

Sociology Professor Jenny Reardon, founding director of the Science & Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz, won a nearly $400,000 National Science Foundation grant to study ethics and equity in the design of science and engineering projects. The project team will spend the next two years reviewing prior scholarship and examining case studies in the fields of genomics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence to analyze how ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) and diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) are incorporated into science.

“We haven’t had a lot of reflection on what the best practices are for going about this in ways that can lead to meaningful change,” Reardon said. “The goal is to create forms of science and technology that genuinely take questions of ethics and equity onboard and that transform their practices as a result.” 

Reardon will lead the grant, alongside University of Washington Professor Sara Goering and Columbia University Professor Sandra Soo-Jin Lee. An advisory panel for the project will include faculty members from Stanford University, University of Washington, Harvard University, and UCLA. The team’s areas of expertise span fields including sociology, philosophy, history, anthropology, bioethics, and genomics, and all members have a wealth of experience in ELSI. 

ELSI is a field of study that was first developed within genomics in the 1990s, in response to concerns about whether genomic data might be used to discriminate against people. Today, ELSI researchers study the societal implications of a wide range of emerging forms of science and technology. Racial bias in algorithms is one example. Addressing these types of issues is crucial to building public trust in science, and increasingly, major funders are requiring ELSI and DEI components in science and engineering projects.

However, Reardon says there’s not always a clear path for ELSI and DEI practitioners to influence outcomes. Some scientists and engineers may not recognize the importance of involving ELSI and DEI experts from the beginning of a project, to advise on research questions and methods, rather than only toward the end, when there’s less room for improvement. Another challenge is that critical findings from ELSI and DEI research are not always translated into action items that scientists and engineers can readily apply to their work. 

To help address these issues, Reardon and the grant project team will ultimately use their findings to compile a set of specific recommendations and criteria for ethics best practices within science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEM). The grant will fund the initial research phase of a larger project called Leadership in the Equitable and Ethical Design (LEED) of Science and Engineering, which takes inspiration from the concrete, practical style of recommendations offered by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. 

“There is a lot of great work being done by scholars in ELSI, but the challenge is, how do you take those findings and translate them into something practical,” Reardon said. “Instead of hanging out in the space of ideas and visions of how science should be done, we wanted to think about STEM research as concrete, material practice and focus on the steps to getting it done.”

The LEED Science and Engineering project intends to offer a set of specific actions and practices for incorporating ethics and equity into science and engineering projects. Reardon says the criteria will be developed in consultation with national and international experts, in order to reflect global consensus on best-practices. The program will not aim to be a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather will provide a variety of options and examples. 

“A group like our Science & Justice Research Center here at UC Santa Cruz might draw from the project to adopt a set of LEED practices that work for us, and those may be different from what another center would adopt,” Reardon explained. “But the point is that there are criteria. So when scientists and engineers come to us and ask us to collaborate on a project, we have a clear way to make those decisions, and we can hold our colleagues accountable for a certain level of practice and engagement around those criteria.”

Reardon says the idea for the LEED Science and Engineering project grew out of the Science & Justice Research Center’s work. The center is primarily an interdisciplinary working group that takes a problem-solving approach to issues of equity and ethics in science, rather than focusing on theoretical questions. It also sponsors research and hosts a popular training program for graduate students, which prepares the next generation of leaders to tackle issues of ethics and justice in scientific practice. The center’s leadership in the LEED Science and Engineering project will advance both its own work and that of the field. 

“Having a specific set of criteria will make it easier for the Science & Justice Research Center to get involved in consulting on projects in the future and to add more value to them,” Reardon said. “And overall, I hope it will become easier for bioethics scholars from the social sciences, humanities, and the arts to collaborate with their science and engineering colleagues.”

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