CHIPS and Science Opens a Door for Society
A DISCUSSION OFMaking the Most of the “Ethical and Societal Considerations” in the CHIPS and Science Act
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In August 2022, President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law, a bill my colleagues and I passed to ensure US leadership in semiconductor development and innovation across a multitude of sectors. The law secured historic authorizations in American manufacturing, support for our workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and bolstering of the nation’s research competitiveness in emerging technologies. A year later, Congress must find the political will to fund the science component of the act, while ensuring these investments are socially and ethically responsible for all Americans.
In recent decades, emerging technologies were quickly perfected and rapidly proliferated to transform our economy and society. Powerful forces are now overwhelmingly at our fingertips, either through mass production or the digital superhighway brought on by fiber optics. What we know today about various materials and energy uses differs dramatically from when we were first harnessing the capabilities of plastics, tool and die making, and the combustion engine. Are we capable of learning from a past when we could not see as clearly into the future as we can today? How can we create a structure to adjust or more ethically adapt to changing environments and weigh social standards for implementing new technology?
Today, we see that many emerging technologies will continue to have profound impacts on the lives of American citizens. Technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology hold tremendous promise, but they also carry tremendous risks. AI and quantum cryptography, for example, will drastically influence the privacy of the average internet user. These are known risks for which we can take steps, including developing legislation, such as a bill I authored, the Privacy Enhancing Technology Research Act, to mitigate such risks. There is also a universe of unknown risks. But even in those cases we have tools and expertise to think through what those risks might be and how to assign value to them.
The ethical and societal considerations in CHIPS and Science were designed to empower scientists and engineers to consider the ethical, social, safety, and security implications of their research throughout its lifecycle, potentially mitigating any harms before they happen. And where researchers lack the tools or knowledge to consider these risks on their own, they might turn to professional ethicists or consensus guidelines within their disciplines for help.
Incorporating these considerations into our federal agencies’ research design and review processes is consistent with the American approach of scientific self-governance. The enacted scientific legislation plays to the strengths of our policymaking in that we entrust researchers to use their intellectual autonomy to create technological solutions for the potential ethical and societal challenges of their work and give them the freedom to pursue new research directions altogether.
While prioritizing our law on STEM diversity, the intent was not only to ensure representation in fields developing and applying the global shaping technologies of the future, but also to put value on the notion that American science can be more culturally just and equitable. This occurs when diverse voices are in the research lab and at the commercialization table.
Seeing the CHIPS and Science Act fully funded remains one of my top priorities. New and emerging technologies, such as AI, quantum computing, and engineering biology, have a vast potential to re-shore American manufacturing, create sustainable supply chains, and bring powerful benefits to all Americans everywhere. However, these societal and ethical benefits cannot be realized if we are not also intentional in considering the societal context for these investments. If we do not lead with our values, other countries whose values we may not share will step in to fill the void. It is time for us to revitalize federal support for all kinds of research and development—including social and ethical initiatives—that have long made the United States a beacon of excellence in science and innovation.
Rep. Haley Stevens
Michigan, 11th District
Ranking Member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology
As David H. Guston intimates, the CHIPS and Science Act presents a new opportunity for the National Science Foundation to make another important step in fostering the social aspects of science. The act can also champion existing and emerging efforts focused on understanding the way social science can deeply inform and shape the entire scientific enterprise.
By describing the historical arc of the evolving place of social science at NSF, Guston illustrates how the unbalance, syncopated, and often arhythmical dance between NSF and social science did not necessarily benefit either. I am optimistic about what specific sections of the CHIPS and Science Act directly require, tacitly imply, and conceptually allude to. The history of NSF is replete with examples of scientific research that fundamentally altered the way humans interact, communicate, and live in a shared world. Contemporary issues—in such diverse areas as rising climate variability and the place of artificial intelligence in our everyday interactions—demand a substantive increase in the support for social science. This research is critically necessary to understand the social impacts of our changing environment and technological systems, and how to design and develop solutions and pathways that equitably center humanity. As the world always shows, we are on the cusp of a new moment. This new moment needs to be driven by social science and social scientists in concert with natural and physical scientists. I use the term concert, and its referent to artistic and sonic creative collaborations, deliberately to evoke a different framework of collaborative and interdisciplinary effort. Part of the solution is to always remember that science is a human endeavor.
In thinking about the place of social science in the next evolution of interdisciplinary research, I believe the cupcake metaphor is instructive. As a child of the 1970s, I remember the cupcake was a birthday celebration staple. I really liked the cake part but was greatly indifferent to the frosting or sprinkles. If I had to choose, I would always select the cupcake with sprinkles for one reason: they were easy to knock off. In the production of science, social scientists can often feel like sprinkles on a cupcake: not essential. Social science is not the egg, the flour, or the sugar. Sprinkles are neither in the batter, nor do they see the oven. Sprinkles are a late addition. No matter the stylistic or aesthetic impact, they never alter the substance of the “cake” in the cupcake. The potential of certain provisions of the CHIPS and Science Act hope to chart a pathway for scientific research that makes social science a key component of the scientific batter to bake social scientific knowledge, skill, and expertise into twenty-first century scientific “cupcakes.”
Professor in Communication Studies and the Medill School of Journalism
Former Division Director, Social and Economic Sciences
National Science Foundation
David H. Guston expertly describes how provisions written into the ambitious CHIPS and Science Act could make ethical and societal considerations a primary factor in the National Science Foundation’s grantmaking priorities, thereby transforming science and innovation policy for generations to come.
Of particular interest, Guston makes reference to public interest technology (PIT), a growing movement of practitioners in academia, civil society, government, and the private sector to build practices to design, deploy, and govern technology to advance the public interest. Here, I extend his analysis by applying core concepts from PIT that have been articulated and operationalized by the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN), a 64-member network of universities and colleges that I oversee as director of public interest technology for New America. (Guston is a founding member of PIT-UN and has led several efforts to establish and institutionalize PIT at Arizona State University and in the academic community more broadly.)
As Guston describes, the CHIPS and Science Act “expand[s] congressional expectations of more integrated, upstream attention to ethical and societal considerations” in NSF’s process for awarding funds. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, operationalizing the concept of “ethical and societal considerations” requires that we get specific about who researchers must include in their process of articulating foreseeable risks and building partnerships to “mitigate risk and amplify societal benefit.”
Public interest technology asserts that the needs and concerns of people most vulnerable to technological harm must be integrated into the process of designing, deploying, and governing technology. While existing methods to assess ethical and societal considerations of technology such as impact evaluations or user-centered design can be beneficial, they often fail to adequately incorporate the needs and concerns of marginalized and underserved communities that have been systematically shut out of stakeholder conversations. Without a clear understanding of how specific communities have been excluded from technology throughout US history—and a shared analysis of how those communities are continually exploited or made vulnerable to the negative impacts of technology—we run the risk of not only repeating the injustices of the past, but also embedding biases and harmful assumptions into emerging technologies. Frameworks and insights from interdisciplinary PIT scholars such as Ruha Benjamin, Cathy O’Neil, Meredith Broussard, and Afua Bruce that map relationships between technology and power structures must inform NSF’s policymaking if the funds made available through the CHIPS and Science Act are to effectively address ethical and societal considerations.
Furthermore, a robust operationalization of these considerations will require a continual push to develop and extend community partnerships in a way that expands our notion of the public. Who should be included in the definition of “the public”? Does it include under-resourced small businesses and nonprofits? People who are vulnerable to tech abuse? People living on the front lines of climate change? In advancing this broader understanding of the public, a strategic partnership with international organizations becomes essential, including cooperation with emerging research entities that focus on the ethical issues within emerging technologies and artificial intelligence such as the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, the Algorithmic Justice League, the Center for AI and Digital Policy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the OECD AI Policy Observatory, among others.
Guston points to participatory technology assessments undertaken through the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University as an example of how to engage the public in understanding and mitigating technological risks. Universities and other NSF-funded institutions must invest more in these kinds of community partnerships to regularly challenge and update our understanding of “the public,” to ensure that technological outputs are truly reflective of the voices, perspectives, and needs of the public as a whole, not only those of policymakers, academics, philanthropists, and technology executives.
Director of Public Interest Technology at New America and the Public Interest Technology University Network
These comments draw in part from recommendations crafted by PIT-UN scholars to NSF’s request for information on “Developing a Roadmap for the Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships.”
The most important word in David H. Guston’s article addressing the societal considerations of the CHIPS and Science Act occurs in the first sentence: “promised.” For scholars and practitioners of science and technology policy, the law has created genuine excitement. This is a dynamic moment, where new practices are being envisioned and new institutions are being established to link scientific research more strongly and directly with societal outcomes.
Many factors will need to converge to realize the promise that Guston describes. One set of contributors that are crucial, yet often overlooked, in this changing ecosystem of science and technology policy are science philanthropies. Science philanthropy has played a key role in the formation and evolution of the current research enterprise, and these funders are especially well-positioned to actualize the kind of use-inspired, societally oriented scholarship that Guston emphasizes. How can science philanthropy assist in achieving these goals? I see three fruitful areas of investigation.
The first is experimenting with alternative approaches to funding. Increasingly, funders from both philanthropy and government are experimenting with different ways of financing scientific research to respond rapidly to scientific and societal needs. Some foundations have explored randomizing grant awards to address the inherent biases of peer review. New institutional arrangements, called Focused Research Organizations, have been established outside of universities to undertake applied, use-inspired research aimed at solving critical challenges related to health and climate change. There is the capacity for science philanthropies to do even more. For instance, participatory grantmaking is emerging as a complementary approach to allocating funds, in which the expected community beneficiaries of a program have a direct say in which awards are made. While this approach has yet to be directly applied to science funding, such alternative decisionmaking processes offer opportunities to place societal implications front and center.
The second is making connections and filling knowledge gaps across disciplines and sectors. Interdisciplinary research is notoriously difficult to fund through conventional federal grantmaking programs. Science philanthropies, because of the wide latitude they have in designing and structuring their programs, are uniquely situated to sponsor such scholarship. As an example, the Energy and Environment program that I oversee at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is focused on advancing interdisciplinary social science and bringing together different perspectives and methodologies to ask and answer central questions about energy system decarbonization. The program supports interdisciplinary research topics such as examining the societal dimensions of carbon dioxide removal technologies, a project in which Guston is directly involved; highlighting the factors that are vital in accelerating the electrification of the energy system; and concentrating on the local, place-based challenges of realizing a just, equitable energy transition. Additional investments from science philanthropies can expand and extend interdisciplinary scholarship across all domains of inquiry.
The third is learning through iteration and evaluation. Guston traces the historical context of how societal concerns have always been present in federal science funding, even if their role has been obscured or marginalized. Science philanthropies can play a pivotal role in resourcing efforts to better understand the historical origins and subsequent evolution of the field of science and technology policy. For this reason, the Sloan Foundation recently funded a series of historically oriented research projects that will illuminate important developments related to the practices and institutions of the scientific enterprise. Further, science philanthropies should do more to encourage retrospective evaluation and impact assessment to inform how society is served by publicly and privately funded research. To that end, over the past three years I have helped to lead the Measurement, Evaluation, and Learning Special Interest Group of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a forum for alliance members to come together and learn from one another about different approaches and perspectives on program monitoring and evaluation. As Guston writes, there is much promise in the CHIPS and Science Act. Science philanthropies will be essential partners to achieve its full potential.
Evan S. Michelson
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
We agree with David Guston’s assertion that the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which established the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships, presents a significant opportunity to increase the public benefits from—and minimize the adverse effects of—US research investments.
We also agree that the TIP directorate’s focus on public engagement in research is promising for amplifying scientific impact. Our experiences leading the Transforming Evidence Funders Network, a global group of funders interested in increasing the societal impact of research, are consistent with a recent NSF report, which states that engaged research “conducted via meaningful collaboration among scientist and nonscientist actors explicitly recognizes that scientific expertise alone is not always sufficient to pose effective research questions, enable new discoveries, and rapidly translate scientific discoveries to address society’s grand challenges.”
We have also found that engaged research could be an essential strategy for identifying, anticipating, and integrating into science the “ethical and societal considerations” mentioned in the CHIPS and Science Act. The NSF-funded centers for nanotechnology in society provide an illustrative example in developing and normalizing participatory technology assessment. As one center notes on its website, the centers use engagement and other tactics to build capacity for collaboration among researchers and the public, allowing the groups to work together to “guide the path of nanotechnology knowledge and innovation toward more socially desirable outcomes and away from undesirable ones.”
But to ensure that engaged research can deliver on the potential these collaborative methods hold, we argue for an expansion of funding for rigorous studies that address questions about when engagement and other strategies are effective for improving the relevance and use of research for societal needs—and who benefits (and who doesn’t) from these strategies. Such studies will increase our understanding of the conditions that enable engagement and other tactics to deliver their intended impacts. For example, scholarship shows that allowing sufficient time for relationship-building between researchers and decisionmakers is important for unlocking the potential of engaged research. Findings from such studies could, and should, shape future research investments aimed at improving societal outcomes.
Efforts to expand understanding in this area—Guston calls these efforts “socio-technical integration research”—include studies on the use of research evidence, science and technology studies, decision science, and implementation science, among several other areas. But so far, this body of research has been relatively siloed and has inconsistently informed research investments. The CHIPS and Science Act may help spur research investments in this important area with its requirement that NSF “make awards to improve our understanding of the impacts of federally funded research on society, the economy, and the workforce.” And the NSF’s TIP directorate provides a helpful precedent for funding studies that develop an understanding of when, and under what conditions, research drives change in decision-making and when (and for whom) research improves outcomes. But much must still be done to meet the need.
The CHIPS and Science Act and the TIP directorate present an important opportunity to scale research efforts that better reflect societal and ethical considerations. To support progress in this area, we have begun coordinating grantmakers in the Transforming Evidence Funders Network to build evidence about the essential elements of success for work at the intersection of science and society. We invite funders to connect with us to make use of the opportunity presented by these shifts in federal science funding and to join us as we build knowledge about how to maximize the societal benefits—and minimize the adverse effects—of research investments.
The Pew Charitable Trusts Evidence Project
The Pew Charitable Trusts Evidence Project