Making the Most of the “Ethical and Societal Considerations” in the CHIPS and Science Act
Faced with a historic opportunity to center societal considerations in scientific research and technology creation, the National Science Foundation can build upon previous work.
At its passage, the CHIPS and Science Act promised, among other goals, a sea change in research and development funding in the United States. Almost immediately, following the Democrats’ loss of the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections, these sweeping ambitions diminished and became more incremental in the omnibus bill. Still, these increments are large for some agencies, particularly the National Science Foundation (NSF). Importantly, the voluminous act contains other provisions for societal considerations that, when implemented by agencies, could result in significant transformations to science and innovation policy that may benefit the country for generations. Examining these mandates, and their relationship to past experiments, reveals how NSF can achieve not only the goals of the CHIPS and Science Act, but also center societal concerns as it reorients the scientific enterprise.
One obvious change wrought by the act is NSF’s new Technology and Innovation Partnerships (TIP) directorate, which NSF preemptively created prior to its authorization. By fostering use-inspired research and working to translate results “to the market and society” TIP moves the agency explicitly into the innovation space. The existence of the directorate demonstrates how far the political consensus has moved since D. Allan Bromley, the science advisor to President George H. W. Bush, admitted that one of his greatest achievements was getting a document published from the White House with the term “technology policy” in it.
But history shows that NSF left behind its identity as “a patron for pure science,” in the words of historian J. Merton England, to work toward societal goals long ago. The 1968 Daddario-Kennedy amendment changed NSF oversight and financial operations—and explicitly called for funding social science while opening the door for applied research. However, after a decade or so of experimentation with such social science-inflected programs as Interdisciplinary Research Relevant to Problems of Our Society (IRPOS) and its successor, Research Applied to National Needs (RANN), the social sciences retreated to NSF’s standard disciplinary organization. Related programs were wound down or transferred to mission agencies.
Nevertheless, IRPOS and RANN presaged further development of more societally oriented work. In 1985, director Eric Bloch created the Engineering Research Center (ERC) program. Since that time, 75 of these interdisciplinary academic research environments have launched. Today, the fourth generation of the program has the goal, as described in a recent report, of creating “a culture that actively stimulates technological innovation through partnerships with all relevant stakeholders by means of collaborative, team-based convergent research on important and complex societal problems.” Over the years, the ERC program has led NSF along the path toward what the CHIPS and Science Act aims to codify in the TIP directorate.
Some observers might still see NSF as leaving success to the “free play of free intellects,” as Vannevar Bush put it in Science, the Endless Frontier. But this brief history shows NSF has been operating in a hybrid mode of use-inspired research and knowledge-based innovation for most of its history.
The CHIPS and Science Act also provides another approach to directing NSF research toward societal challenges, one that harkens back to an alternate vision of NSF that barely surfaced in the original debates around its creation (and that required the Daddario-Kennedy amendment to correct). Section 10343 of the act, entitled “Research Ethics,” mandates that NSF engage with the “ethical and societal considerations” of the research it funds. It conveys “the sense of Congress” that “emerging areas of research have potential ethical, social, security and safety implications that might be apparent as early as the basic research stage.… [The incorporation of such considerations] into the research design and review process for Federal awards, may help mitigate potential harms before they happen.”
Such language resurrects an alternative vision of NSF from the time of its founding. During the post-World War II debate about creating NSF, an important question (beyond scientific autonomy and intellectual property) was whether the social sciences should be included in the agency’s portfolio. The elites of science advocating for NSF wanted to exclude the social sciences, largely because they feared that any ideological taint of the social sciences would rub off on the more important natural sciences they wanted NSF to fund, thus scuttling the whole effort. However, biophysicist Detlev Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1950 to 1962, broke with the elites. He recalled arguing in congressional testimony for the inclusion of social sciences: “Competent social scientists should work hand-in-hand with natural scientists so that problems may be solved as they arise, and so that many of them may not arise in the first instance.”
But the elites won the day, and it ultimately took NSF about 20 years to formally include the social sciences in its portfolio of research. Even in fiscal year 2021, the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) directorate accounted for only 4% of NSF’s spending on research and related activities.
In its first 20 years, the SBE directorate worked as a separate discipline rather than the cross-cutting model Bronk had envisioned. It was only in the 1980s that the organization started to gesture toward such integration: it began including as criteria of evaluation the “utility or relevance” of the work and its impact on science and engineering infrastructure alongside the competence of the investigator and the “intrinsic merit” of the research. In 1997, NSF condensed these four criteria into “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts,” the latter of which NSF further specified as the research-education link, the participation of underrepresented groups, the infrastructure for research or education, the dissemination of results, and the broader benefits to society.
This broader impacts criterion spoke to some limited vision of the responsibility of funded researchers to address specific societal needs as an integral part of the research effort—at least in the sense that they would be reviewed by peers in the same project proposal alongside intellectual merit. In 2010, reflecting general disappointment in the performance of the broader impacts criterion, Congress redefined it through the America COMPETES Act as economic competitiveness, health and welfare, national defense, academic-industry partnerships, STEM workforce, scientific literacy and public engagement, and expanded participation by women and underrepresented groups.
Echoing and building upon these earlier examples, the CHIPS and Science Act continues to elaborate requirements for “ethical, legal, and societal considerations”—specifically for the TIP directorate (Section 10398) as well as for new “engineering biology research,” which also received a mandate for a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study. The latest visions enshrined in the act do not disturb the existing consensus on broader impacts, but they do expand congressional expectations of more integrated, upstream attention to ethical and societal considerations. In Section 10343(b), the act mandates that no “later than 24 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director shall revise proposal instructions to require that ethical and societal considerations are to be included as part of a proposal for funding prior to making the award.”
While the act limits its mandate to “where such considerations are applicable,” the text affirms that they “shall factor into award decisions.”
By making ethical and societal considerations part of the award process, the CHIPS and Science Act envisions that researchers will address them in one of at least three ways: by articulating foreseeable risks or asserting that none exist; by describing and planning to implement social or technical means of mitigating such risks; and by including in the research collaborations partnerships that can help mitigate risk and amplify societal benefit. The act further instructs NSF to make competitive awards supporting research to assess the ethical and societal considerations of NSF’s own research and to develop and verify approaches to proactively mitigate foreseeable risks. This turn is a historic one; until now, Congress has never called on NSF—and NSF has never tried—to fulfill Bronk’s vision across its entire portfolio, regardless of size of investment or topic of inquiry.
Despite its novelty, this mandate offers another opportunity for NSF to build upon work that it has already supported. Nearly 20 years ago, to fulfill its obligations to engage in the “responsible development” of nanotechnology, NSF funded two centers for nanotechnology in society—one at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) and a second at University of California, Santa Barbara (CNS-UCSB). Congress laid out this integrative approach in the act that authorized the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Shortly after the nano-in-society centers opened in 2005, NSF also mandated that an ERC on synthetic biology should include an integrated societal component, which had not been included in the original proposal, as a condition of funding.
These earlier projects took on the tricky question of “foreseeable risks” in research in creative ways. Although the paradigm of risk can be used to evaluate specific dangers, such as those to human health, it is notoriously inadequate for addressing social risks and the ways that technologies may interact with each other. To gain foresight about risks from emerging technologies, researchers at CNS-ASU, which I directed from 2005 to 2016, developed the idea of anticipatory governance to tackle some of the challenges of the risk paradigm. For example, to aid the design of more environmentally sustainable photovoltaics, Ben Wender and colleagues created a method for anticipatory life cycle assessment (LCA). Applying LCA to early-stage research and development enables researchers to guide emerging technologies toward decreased environmental burden. In this vein, developing capacities for anticipating the plausible futures of emerging technologies can be used to find and mitigate foreseeable risks while providing innovative pathways to creating public value.
Another area of innovation for both CNS sites was creating new methods for public engagement around risk and emerging technologies. CNS-UCSB director Barbara Herr Harthorn and colleagues explored the dynamics of public and expert perspectives on risk, connecting the broad array of critical stakeholders across sectors and roles in the innovation system. The multiple dimensions of this work reveal the complexity of understanding what risk is—ideas about benefits, specific types of imagined applications, information contexts, and equity, diversity, and politics all matter. Each of these dimensions will be relevant to any effort by NSF and its grantees to understand, articulate, and mitigate risks related to sponsored research and, importantly, to amplify their potential social benefits.
The public engagement work performed at the nanotechnology centers emphasized upstream activities like agenda-setting, but they also did work that NSF should draw upon to meet the mandate in the CHIPS and Science Act for NSF to engage with communities to help understand how to implement its approach to ethical and societal considerations. In particular, CNS-ASU engaged the public in face-to-face and online discussions about issues in nanotechnology applied to human health and enhancement. The expertise built there continued to develop and even normalize an approach to participatory technology assessment (pTA).
Over the last decade, this work has expanded globally and been supported by private philanthropies and public agencies including NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Participatory technology assessment has been used to gather informed public deliberation on geoengineering, human gene editing after CRISPR, and planetary defense. Insights from these exercises have helped guide federal agency decisionmaking. NSF should use robust methods like pTA to expand its understanding of the relevant community—which is usually defined as researchers who receive NSF funding—to include the lay public.
In its efforts to implement the mandates of the CHIPS and Science Act, NSF can draw upon numerous other previous investments, including socio-technical integration research (STIR) that developed with CNS-ASU, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center at the University of Maryland, and NSF’s own work with the National Academy of Sciences on “the science of team science.” Inspiration can also be found in the way that some European nations and Europe itself have defined funding programs around the concept of responsible innovation, as well as the findings of research activities those programs have supported.
Another resource for NSF is the emerging movement around public interest technology, about which New America has created a network of some five dozen diverse institutions of higher education dedicated to pursuing science-based innovation that supports the public good. Scholars and educators involved in the network have developed a body of expertise that includes research, academic and outreach programs, and cross-sectoral partnerships that help support the institutional bases of ethical and societal considerations of scientific research.
In reaching for new relevance, however, NSF can also learn from other parts of its past. Although the CHIPS and Science Act does not invoke NSF’s broader impacts criterion, there are important lessons from its implementation that can be applied to the future. University of North Texas philosopher Adam Briggle has argued that the broader impacts criterion framed all impacts as positive, even though innovation invariably produces losers as well as winners. Writing in the Journal of Responsible Innovation, he characterized the criterion as performing a “sleight of hand” in which policy threatens a form of social accountability but “nothing about science or its relationship to society is even touched in the process.” In taking on its new mandate, NSF should avoid performing such sleights of hand. But even here, the institution can build upon its past experience: Briggle’s work was itself funded by an NSF grant.
With its mandate from Congress and with the relevant and insightful portfolio of research it has already sponsored, NSF needs to embrace such inquiry into and evaluation of the ethical and societal considerations of its entire portfolio of its work. It can no longer let the research chips fall where they may.