The History of the OEC

The Beginning

Seed money from Raymond Stata, president of Analog Devices, funded the prototype for the OEC in the early 1990s. Grants from the National Science Foundation (SBR-9511862, SBR-9871169, SES-9976500, SES-0135585, and SES-0428597) supported its development and operation until its transfer to the NAE. NAE member Harry E. Bovay, Jr., president of MidSouth Telecommunications Company, contributed funds for the transition and continuing support.

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and, from 1997 to 2007, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) were the primary creators of many of the OEC pages and made many invaluable contributions to its design, maintenance, and accessibility. The OEC moved with Dr. Caroline Whitbeck to Case Western Reserve University in 1997 when she became the school’s first Elmer G. Beamer–Hubert H. Schneider Professor in Ethics. CWRU students worked as technical consultants and content developers for the site. They included Francy Acosta, Marlon Buchanan, Anila Jahangiri, Xiaobo Li, Michael Melamed, Juliet Midgley, Andrew Penry, Andrew Roksandic, Amanda Shaffer, Laura Simna, and Toni Thayer. Renee Holland provided able administrative assistance from 1999 to 2007.

The OEC Comes to the NAE

The OEC owes its existence to the founding leadership of Professor Caroline Whitbeck, who at a 2003 NAE conference on “Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering” proposed to NAE president Wm. A. Wulf (1997–2007) the transfer of the OEC from Case Western Reserve University to the NAE. The conference was funded by NAE member Charles J. Pankow (1923–2004), and the proceedings published by the National Academies Press. After the conference, Dr. Wulf appointed a committee to advise him on next steps for the NAE to address ethical activities. The committee, headed by NAE member Norm Augustine, reported that, contingent on funding, the NAE should house a center that would focus on research, education, and outreach activities in this field.

In 2007 the NAE launched the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society (CEES) and effected the transfer of the OEC to CEES with a gift from NAE member Harry E. Bovay, Jr. (1914–2011). In addition, a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) provided funds (grant number 0936865) to develop new OEC resources to assist individuals and institutions in complying with the new America COMPETES Act requirements. The grant also enabled a restructuring of the website to facilitate searches and provide a more user-friendly interface.

The OEC has been guided by a distinguished group of advisors since its inception. They come from a variety of disciplines in addition to engineering and the natural and physical sciences, including philosophy, psychology, history, and sociology, and include individuals with oversight responsibilities for ethical behavior for professional societies, corporations, and government agencies as well as academics. Advisors for both the OEC and CEES were combined into the CEES Advisory Group in 2012. Caroline Whitbeck provided valuable direction as chair of the OEC Advisory Group through 2010. Rachelle Hollander led the OEC beginning in 2007, with Simil Raghavan joining the team in 2008. Frazier Benya took over as director of OEC operations in 2010. After Frazier moved to a different project in 2017, Beth Cady oversaw the OEC until the current director, Rosalyn Berne, joined the NAE in 2018. The OEC later transitioned to the University of Virginia with Dr. Berne, where it is currently hosted. 

Expanding the OEC

From 2014-2019, a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) enabled the site to expand its content and functionality. Redesigned and augmented content (e.g., enhanced with new pedagogical resources and ethical commentaries) as well as the collection of new content provided information for practitioners, educators, and students about ethical, social justice, diversity, and globalization considerations associated with science and engineering. Content editorial boards in five areas were established to review, identify, and develop materials, and to work with various communities to meet their needs. Co-PI Karin Ellison from Arizona State University led the new editorial effort with the Life and Environmental Sciences Editorial Board. A team from the University of Delaware, led by Thomas M. Powers, expanded the collection on international issues.

Transforming Ethics

An NSF grant awarded in 2019 is supporting the OEC’s efforts to help transform education in the responsible conduct of research (RCR), foster an ethical culture in education and practice, and to become part of a comprehensive approach to improve ethical culture and integrity at U.S. research and STEM educational institutions. The intention is that the OEC will function to equip science and engineering faculty with tools and resources that will enable them to infuse ethical values and training in their disciplinary courses, and to engage university administrators and others responsible for educating students, postdocs, and faculty about research integrity and RCR.