Entering the Social Experiment: A Case for the Informed Consent of Graduate Engineering Students

Social Epistemology 23 (3):283-300 (2009)
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Taking up the notion of engineering as social experimentation, this paper argues that engineering research laboratory directors have a responsibility to inform graduate engineering students who participate in their research projects of the potential broader social dimensions of those projects. Informing engineers-in-the-making of the broader social dimensions of the research they are learning to conduct would help ensure their future capacity to act as ethically responsible social experimenters. The paper also argues that graduate engineers have a right to be informed participants in activities that may have broader social dimensions than are recognized by formal research evaluation or educational processes. The process of obtaining the informed consent of graduate engineering students, if implemented effectively, would thus help ensure both their capacity to act as moral agents and their own moral integrity. Since the eventual outcomes of research can be uncertain, complex, and contested, most traditional institutional frameworks—such as principle-based codes of conduct and risk-benefit frameworks—provide an insufficient basis to inform engineers and citizens. Rather, we recommend an ongoing discursive process that explores a number of different actors, contexts, and scenarios, and that evolves with the social context of the engineering research in question. While this may seem burdensome to the engineering research process, it can be integrated directly into the group research meetings and mentorship activities that typically already go on. Moreover, it can actually be seen to benefit engineering practices



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