April 2011

Undergraduate education in the responsible conduct of research

Although teaching RCR to undergraduates is not a new activity, we should seize the opportunities created by granting agency mandates.

Students  discuss a research ethics case.

The first federal mandate requiring education in the responsible conduct of research (RCR) was implemented in 1990 by the National Institutes of Health. The scope of that requirement was limited to trainees receiving support from specific types of NIH grants. Initially, the policy created anxiety and raised questions. Who, what, how and when would we teach RCR? Another course for the already overloaded curriculum? Don’t mentors do this already? Who’s going to pay for this? The angst from 20 years ago may rear its head from time to time, but it largely has given way to a variety of newly created teaching models, self-study packages, textbooks and a variety of resource materials.

The evolution of the graduate and postgraduate RCR curriculum has tracked with the implementation of other related research policies. Most notable are policies that prescribe sharing data or require a description of mentoring activities planned for grant-supported postdocs. The newest policy is found in the America COMPETES Act of 2007. It requires that National Science Foundation proposals “provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers participating in the proposed research project.”

The opportunity

The 1990 NIH RCR educational mandate required RCR instruction for Institutional National Research Service Award research training grants. This included awards under the Minority Access to Research Careers Program, which provides undergraduate training in academic research. Thus, mandated formal undergraduate instruction in RCR is not new. And with the NSF mandate in place for the past year, there has been increased thinking about and participation in undergraduate RCR teaching. Of course, there’s an army of faculty members who have been designing, refining and teaching RCR to pre- and postdoctoral trainees for more than 20 years. The collective experiences and the resources coming from this teaching have created a framework that is useful in informing how we should educate undergraduates.

Many scientists hold that it is our obligation to teach trainees about the responsible conduct of research. The early government mandates provided the catalyst for formalizing RCR education. They heightened awareness of the need for such instruction, and they accelerated the development of resource material. But the members of the scientific community are the stewards of the RCR educational movement. Although teaching RCR to undergraduates is not a new activity, we should seize the opportunity created by the NSF mandate. Beginning to instill the norms and culture of responsible research in undergraduates makes enormous sense. For those destined to devote their lives to science, the earlier they grasp the concept of responsible research, the better. And for those who don’t pursue careers as scientists, an RCR course may well afford a view of how science works. This is a good first step in facilitating a much-needed public understanding of science.

Engaging undergraduates in thinking and learning about RCR

The following are some thoughts to consider in developing or refining undergraduate RCR instructional curricula and platforms.

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