Ethics and Society Review: Ethics Reflection As A Precondition to Research Funding

Michael Bernstein, Margaret Levi, David Magnus, Betsy Rajala, Debra Satz, Charla Waeiss
PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021
Researchers in areas as diverse as computer science and political science must increasingly navigate the possible risks of their research to society. However, the history of medical experiments on vulnerable individuals influenced many research ethics reviews to focus exclusively on risks to human subjects rather than risks to human society. We describe an Ethics and Society Review board (ESR), which fills this moral gap by facilitating ethical and societal reflection as a requirement to access grant funding: Researchers cannot receive grant funding from participating programs until the researchers complete the ESR process for their proposal. Researchers author an initial statement describing their proposed research’s risks to society, subgroups within society, and globally and commit to mitigation strategies for these risks. An interdisciplinary faculty panel iterates with the researchers to refine these risks and mitigation strategies. We describe a mixed-method evaluation of the ESR over 1 y, in partnership with a large artificial intelligence grant program at our university. Surveys and interviews of researchers who interacted with the ESR found 100% (95% CI: 87 to 100%) were willing to continue submitting future projects to the ESR, and 58% (95% CI: 37 to 77%) felt that it had influenced the design of their research project. The ESR panel most commonly identified issues of harms to minority groups, inclusion of diverse stakeholders in the research plan, dual use, and representation in datasets. These principles, paired with possible mitigation strategies, offer scaffolding for future research designs.