case western reserve university



Online Ethics Center at Case Moves to NAE

Just how important is ethics in the daily lives of scientists and engineers? The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at Case Western Reserve University ( receives 6,000 to 10,000 requests for pages each day as researchers, practicing engineers, and students from around the world look for information related to ethical issues.

Caroline Whitbeck, the Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider University Professor in Ethics in Case's department of philosophy, has watched the Online Center for Ethics, a site she founded and now directs, grow from its infancy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into maturity at its current home at Case.

With its well established presence on the Web—and now considered as the premier ethics center listing for Yahoo because of its longevity—the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), located in Washington, D.C., has invited the center to become an activity of the organization and be a part of NAE President Bill Wulf's vision to have a major center for engineering ethics at the Academy.

"The Online Ethics Center will gain greater visibility," said Whitbeck, who also holds a faculty appointment in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Case.

Even though the web presence moves to the NAE site, Whitbeck and Case students will continue to contribute to building the site from the Case campus. The Case students have contributed in numerous ways, including making the site handicap accessible and user friendly for visually challenged users.

Whitbeck recently received a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to work with the University of Missouri at St. Louis to enhance the site's use as an educational resource and to prepare for the transition to NAE.

The move to the NAE also will advance the center's data handling to enable library users around the world to more readily locate and harvest what they need from the site, said Whitbeck.

Established in 1995 at MIT, the Online Ethics Center grew out of Whitbeck's work to tackle diversity issues by an engineering coalition at MIT. She began by posting key literature about the barriers to diversity in engineering and science.

The center moved to Case in 1997 when Whitbeck was appointed to the newly established Beamer-Schneider Chair in Ethics, funded by the 1525 Foundation. The Online Ethics Center has been maintained by Whitbeck and a core of Case undergraduate and graduate students, whom she calls "the backbone" of the Web site.

"The Online Ethics Center has helped departments develop standards of responsible behavior in handling common problems of research conduct in ways that are appropriate to specific disciplines and research conditions and fosters a common understanding of those standards," said Whitbeck. "This information helps people respond well to common problem situations in research because they have jointly developed understanding of the situation, common pitfalls and temptations and a range of responses that are appropriate for their research conditions."

The center's mission from its inception has been "to provide engineers, scientists and science and engineering students with resources useful for understanding and addressing ethically significant problems that arise in their work life."

Information is also available for educators who want to include discussions of ethical problems related to technical subjects as part of a technical course, added Whitbeck.

One of the most popular places Web browsers stop at is the center's extensive ethics glossary. Web visitors can access information about ethical practices in engineering, computers and software and the natural sciences; the "moral exemplars," with the stories of individuals like Roger Boisjoly, who attempted to stop the launch of the space shuttle Challenger; and responsible research with scenarios, essays, standards and writings about working in the lab.

Whitbeck said that, in addition to engineering practice, she focused on responsible research conduct in engineering and science because these fields have their own set of issues, which differ from those of medical research that often focuses on clinical research involving human subjects.

As grew, Whitbeck said it became a model for other ethics Web sites such as the science and technology one in Europe called Ethicsonline at and also the commercial site called

"I think it is good that we have this many people developing conversations in culturally appropriate ways," says Whitbeck.


About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work.