Ethics and society review: Ethics reflection as a precondition to research funding

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
December 28, 2021; vol. 118 no. 52


Social Sciences
Open Access
Ethics and society review: Ethics reflection as a precondition to research funding
Michael S. Bernstein, Margaret Levi, David Magnus, Betsy A. Rajala, Debra Satz, and Charla Waeiss
PNAS December 28, 2021 118 (52) e2117261118;
Research fields that hold transformative possibilities for improving the human condition also raise risks of negative ethical and societal outcomes. These ethical and societal risks fall outside the purview of most research reviews. We introduce an iterative review process that draws these fields into reflection and mitigation of ethical and societal risks by conditioning access to grant funding on completion of the process. A 1-y evaluation of our approach with an artificial intelligence funding program at our university suggests that this approach is well-received by researchers and positively influenced the design of their research. This process has also generated lists of common risks and mitigation strategies, to provide scaffolding for future processes.
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.