The NetEthics project will make a major advance in the responsible conduct of large, complex engineering research projects such as NSF-funded Engineering Research Centers (ERCs). Engineering research increasingly involves multidisciplinary teams networked across multiple universities and other institutions to develop new technologies. However, tools to help these teams conduct research ethically and develop technologies for societal benefit are lacking. Instead, current research ethics and tools tend to focus either on the responsibilities of individual researchers or the big societal issues that the new technology will raise. These two ends of the spectrum – the micro level of the individual and the macro level of overall impacts -- leave a troubling gap in the middle by offering little guidance to the leaders of complex research networks. Those leaders regularly face difficult issues such as how to reconcile conflicting ethical approaches across the network, how to ensure ethical and respectful laboratory leadership and mentoring, how to create network-wide processes for resolving disputes, and how to build a network culture valuing inclusion and diversity. Network leaders also face challenges in building community and stakeholder relationships, ensuring responsible commercialization, and making sure that the entire research network fulfills ethical responsibilities such as responsible conduct of research (RCR) with human participants, ethical treatment of animals in research, and avoiding conflicts of interest.
The NetEthics project will work with a group of national experts to systematically identify key ethical values to guide network ethics. The project will then use an NSF-funded ERC – ATP-BioSM -- as a laboratory to study network ethics in action. This ERC is developing technologies to “stop biological time” with advanced techniques for preserving cells, tissues, and organs to transform systems from organ transplantation to conservation biology. Finally, NetEthics will develop training tools that can be used by complex research ethics networks and those who seek to lead these major projects.