Promoting Ethics in STEM and Society

This chapter takes a chronological approach to discussing a non-traditional, lengthy philosophical career working in the federal government—at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)—and in a non-profit federally chartered organization—the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Both organizations include a focus on ethics in science, technology', engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in their activities. They also differ substantially. NSF is a federal agency with a yearly budget appropriation from the U.S. Congress. Its mission is to support research infrastructure and projects, and science and engineering education, throughout the country'. NASEM is a federally chartered non-profit honorary membership organization of scientists and engineers who provide advice to federal agencies, other organizations, and the public about technical dimensions within policy-related issues. Both organizations have employed a few philosophers over the course of their existence, but the vast majority' of their professional employees are scientists and engineers.

The evolution of a career is to some degree haphazard, but it may be possible to draw some general lessons and note some cautions from its development. The chapter takes an episodic look at the evolution of my' circumstances and skills as I worked in these organizations, and speculates about how different responses on my part might have improved outcomes. I try to extract some themes, questions, and lessons from my experience at particular stages, as well as in general.


The chapter is organized into three career stages or components: early or precareer development, the main stage or central focus, and the afterlife which the main career made possible.

The early stage includes undergraduate studies and extracurricular activities, graduate studies and interregnum pursuits. An important aspect of this period includes a set of side events or engagements that affected later career choices: civil rights, student newspaper, Johns Hopkins University (JHU) alumni magazine, and the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) programs in history and philosophy of science and philosophy and public policy. My tasks as associate editor of the JHU magazine included informal field philosophy (observational studies), and these observations along with prior and later efforts stimulated me to identify empirical phenomena that affected my understanding of ethical issues for science, engineering, and medicine. These studies helped to clarify the meaning and implications of philosophical arguments, concepts, and positions. My work on consent, risk and safety, and agricultural research benefited from paying attention to context, circumstances, and cases—to examining how what is the case is relevant to what should be the case.

The main stage of my career involved government employment (1975-2005) at the NSF. I was still completing my doctorate in philosophy and the new field of applied ethics when I started working there. I was hired to assist the NSF in initiating its programs focused on ethics and STEM. Much later I wrote entries for both editions of the Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Ethics (2005, 2014) about these developments, and much of the discussion in this chapter concerning NSF is based on those entries.

My afterlife consisted of part-time employment (2007—2017) at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to develop new ethics programs at the NAE Center for Engineering Ethics and Society (CEES), which is part of NASEM.

Career Prelude

Individual strengths often come with associated weaknesses, and how they play out depends on the context in which people find themselves. I began college in September 1961. From early undergraduate days, I had the strength of wide-ranging curiosity that came with a weakness with respect to focus and depth. I took numerous science courses as an undergraduate, and I found time to edit the college newspaper and become politically active in civil rights and a tutorial program for Baltimore High School students. In my graduate program in philosophy at UMCP I had difficulty identifying a dissertation topic, for I did not share the metaphysical and epistemological interests of UMCP philosophy faculty. I took a leave of absence and went to work at the JHU alumni magazine for several years, and that began my next 40 or so years in the field of STEM ethics.

The JHU alumni magazine covered the undergraduate campus and the medical school and the school of public health, both of which were affiliated with the hospital. My “beat” included the undergraduate science and engineering departments and those downtown campuses and the hospital. I interacted with faculty in these places and became intrigued by the communication difficulties I saw between different professionals, and between them and clients and the public. This was also the time during which public outrage about medical experiments on patients or subjects whose consent was not asked for or received became a matter of considerable media interest.

Around that time, the UMCP philosophy department launched a Center for Ethics and Public Policy; the new department head was a philosopher who worked in the area of STEM ethics—Samuel Gorovitz. I proposed a dissertation topic in the new field of biomedical ethics, and he agreed to supervise it. The dissertation made use of my empirical exposure to communication issues for clients/patients and physicians and other medical personnel that was part of my experience at the magazine. The experience led to a revised conceptualization of informed consent (Hollander 1984).

Just before I returned to graduate school in the mid-1970s, the philosopher Robert Baum came to work at the NSF, on the new ethics and science program activity. Baum specialized in ethics and technology and came from a university known for educating engineers, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was looking for an assistant, and he hired me.

What do I take from this? If you can afford to (which most of us whose education did not require debt could), and you don’t wish to commit to an academic career within a well-crafted disciplinary' approach, don’t worry about twists and turns on the route—it may turn out better than you think. The lack of tenure-track employment in the field of philosophy at the time also had an impact on my career choices, and this may remain an incentive to look elsewhere. Turning from the practical or personal to the intellectual side of career development in philosophy, you may find—as I did—that making a connection to current issues and problems provides an important stimulus to the identification, and then examination, of philosophical issues.

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