Ethics Education Requirements

The need for research ethics education is specified, in part, by federal requirements from the NIH and NSF, and so some extent by institutions. Some of the rationale behind these requirements is discussed below as well.

Funding/Sponsoring Agencies


The first such requirement was for National Institutes of Health (NIH) Training Grants to provide an opportunity for trainees to receive instruction in RCR (NIH, 1989 and 1992). A recent update refining this policy is more explicit about the audience, frequency, and format of RCR instruction: Update on the Requirement for Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Research.


While the National Science Foundation (NSF) has had a longstanding interest in education in the ethical practice of science, it has only recently introduced a broad requirement for all undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers receiving funding from the NSF. The requirement can be found at: Chapter 4 of NSF Grantee Standards and additional information can be found at: Frequently Asked Questions.


With increasing federal requirements, and increasing attention to the need for research ethics education, more and more institutions or individual programs and departments are making such education a requirement for all students or even all researchers.

Rationale for Requirements

The purpose of teaching research ethics is to promote integrity in the work of scientists, scholars, and professionals involved in the field of scientific and scholarly inquiry and practice. Responsible and ethical research behavior of researchers, research institutions, and government agencies has historically relied on a system of self-regulation based on shared ethical principles and generally accepted practices. Interest in the teaching of responsible conduct of research (RCR) has surged in response to federal requirements for PHS-funded researchers to receive RCR training. Recent national attention to highly publicized cases of fraud, plagiarism, and other instances of professional misconduct have only elevated the importance of teaching RCR.

Blatant forms of research misconduct have included cases of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism, resulting in political attention and intense reaction. The consequences of such wrongdoing are not only lost opportunities in science, but also a risk for decreasing public trust. At the opening of hearings on scientific fraud before the Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Chairman Albert Gore of Tennessee stated, “At the base of our investment in research lies the trust of the American people and the integrity of the scientific enterprise” (US Congress, House, 1981).

Representative John Dingell (1993) in his Shattuck lecture summarized high profile cases of medical research misconduct that resulted in political scrutiny in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to federal policies and guidelines requiring RCR instruction. Research fraud became a governmental concern, “a matter of politics not science” due in part to the reactions of the scientific leadership to instances of research fraud and misconduct (LaFollette, 1994).

In response to the many instances of research misconduct and questionable research practices at major research institutions in the 1980s, the Institute of Medicine in a 1989 report noted “[I]nstruction in the standards and ethics of research is essential to the proper education of scientists.” Following implementation by the NIH of a requirement that training grant programs provide training in the responsible conduct of research, many formal RCR training programs have now been established. Although NIH mandated instruction in RCR, specific goals and core competencies were not defined. Nor does the requirement specify a particular format or curriculum. Other governmental and nongovernmental advisory bodies have endorsed RCR education and training. These agencies recognize the need for curriculum and core competency development (DHHS, 1995; Korenman,SG, Shipp, AC, 1994; National Academy of Sciences, 1992). More recently, a legislative mandate calls for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers participating in grant proposals funded by the NSF (P.L. 110-69, The 21st Century Competitiveness Act of 2007).

Originally published 1999-2013 at Resources for Research Ethics Education, a web project directed by Michael Kalichman, Ph.D., and Dena Plemmons, Ph.D., from the University of California-San Diego Research Ethics Program and the San Diego Research Ethics Consortium. Republished with permission.

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