• August 28, 2015

NSF Defers to Universities on Ethical Standards

When it comes to ethical standards, the National Science Foundation is placing its trust in universities.

Two years after President George W. Bush signed into law the America Competes Act, which was designed to improve U.S. competitiveness in mathematics and science, the National Science Foundation today announced its plans for carrying out a requirement of the law that all NSF grant recipients be trained in the "responsible and ethical conduct" of research.

The NSF's answer: Let the universities handle it. In rules published today in the Federal Register, the NSF said it would require only that institutions certify that they have provided ethics training, and would not routinely ask universities to submit any description of the actual content of the instruction.

"While training plans are not required to be included in proposals submitted to NSF," the agency said, "institutions are advised that they are subject to review upon request."

The NSF also said it would make available some guidelines for teaching ethics, including workshops and online resources, but would not dictate specific content standards.

"Training needs may vary depending on specific circumstances of research or the needs of students," the NSF said. "Therefore, it is the responsibility of each institution to determine both the content and the delivery method for the training that will meet the institution's particular needs" for ethics training, it said.

The NSF has an annual budget of about $6-billion, which it uses to supply about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted at U.S. universities.

The new ethics requirement won't bring more money for universities to cover the cost, however. The NSF said it had received a series of requests for universities to be allowed to pay for the ethics training through an exemption from the general 26-percent cap on administrative costs in research grants. The NSF said in its guidelines that it did not have the authority to change that cap.


1. _perplexed_ - August 20, 2009 at 04:44 pm

"The new ethics requirement won't bring more money for universities to cover the cost..."

Here's another few dollars that will get added to the tuition/fees of students...And anyone wonders why costs can't be controlled?

2. davi2665 - August 21, 2009 at 10:11 am

The policy of NSF (similar to NIH)to leave ethical standards in the hands of the universities is akin to asking the fox to guard the chicken coop with the doors open. Most universities pay wonderful lip service to ethical standards, but when one of their big money-generating researchers is caught lying about consulting revenues, misrepresenting information to NIH or other federal agencies, or even making up data, they get a slap on the wrist that is inversely proportional to the amount of money they bring in. The universities are incapable of properly overseeing ethical conduct of research, particularly when the faculty, through "shared governance," set the rules and pretend to police themselves. Teaching ethics courses is an exercise in futility- those who pay attention don't need the instruction, and those who lack integrity think it's all a big joke, and that the rules don't apply to them. Until such time as knowing and deliberate research misconduct, lying to NIH and the institution, falsifying data, and like offenses are treated seriously, with guaranteed dismal for cause, criminal prosecution, and appropriate civil penalties and fines, we will continue to see the almost daily revelations of research misconduct come to light. I certainly am no fan of federal intervention, but asking universities to police themselves on this important issue is absurd.

3. tridaddy - August 24, 2009 at 10:00 am

Don't know where davi2665 works but holding and enforcing high standards of integrity and ethics can be done. Policing is difficult but when an allegation of misconduct is made and is treated according to those same high standards the result can be proper and appropriate. Having served on an investigative committee at a previous institution I can vouch that the matter was handled in a serious and professional manner (and yes, the individual was found to have committed misconduct, money from the grant was returned to NIH). My current position requires that I oversee responsible conduct of research and nothing gets a free-pass. Don't condemn all of us with the poor job done in overseeing misconduct and ethics in your past or current experiences.

4. davi2665 - August 24, 2009 at 10:51 am

Tridaddy: I am not trying to condemn everyone regarding the oversight of misconduct and ethics. I have the same responsibilities in my position, and take them very seriously, as does our senior-most administration. What I do condemn is the failure of a University to take disciplinary action (such as dismissal for cause) in blatant cases in which a researcher lies to NIH and his home institution, makes up data, or commits a truly egregious offense. Clearly, any extramural funds involved in such events need to be returned. What leaves me disgusted is the seeming unwillingness of the highest level of administration in many of these cases to set the standard for personal conduct that includes a public and immediate dismissal, with possible added civil and criminal action, when an investigative committee determines that misconduct has occurred.

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