NSF Defers to Universities on Ethical Standards

August 20, 2009

When it comes to ethical standards, the National Science Foundation is placing its trust in universities.

Two years after President George W. Bush signed into law the America Competes Act, which was designed to improve U.S. competitiveness in mathematics and science, the National Science Foundation today announced its plans for carrying out a requirement of the law that all NSF grant recipients be trained in the "responsible and ethical conduct" of research.

The NSF's answer: Let the universities handle it. In rules published today in the Federal Register, the NSF said it would require only that institutions certify that they have provided ethics training, and would not routinely ask universities to submit any description of the actual content of the instruction.

"While training plans are not required to be included in proposals submitted to NSF," the agency said, "institutions are advised that they are subject to review upon request."

The NSF also said it would make available some guidelines for teaching ethics, including workshops and online resources, but would not dictate specific content standards.

"Training needs may vary depending on specific circumstances of research or the needs of students," the NSF said. "Therefore, it is the responsibility of each institution to determine both the content and the delivery method for the training that will meet the institution's particular needs" for ethics training, it said.

The NSF has an annual budget of about $6-billion, which it uses to supply about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted at U.S. universities.

The new ethics requirement won't bring more money for universities to cover the cost, however. The NSF said it had received a series of requests for universities to be allowed to pay for the ethics training through an exemption from the general 26-percent cap on administrative costs in research grants. The NSF said in its guidelines that it did not have the authority to change that cap.