Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
Leading with ethics, aiming for policy: new
opportunities for philosophy of science
Received: 6 February 2010 / Accepted: 23 July 2010 / Published online: 1 October 2010
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010
Abstract The goal of this paper is to articulate and advocate for an enhanced role for
philosophers of science in the domain of science policy as well as within the science
curriculum. I argue that philosophy of science as a ﬁeld can learn from the successes
as well as the mistakes of bioethics and begin to develop a new model that includes
robust contributions to the science classroom, research collaborations with scientists,
and a role for public philosophy through involvement in science policy development.
Through an analysis of two case studies, I illustrate how philosophers of science can
make effective and productive contributions to science education as well as to interdis-
ciplinary scientiﬁc research, and argue for the essential role of philosophers of science
in the realm of science policy.
Keywords Science policy · Research ethics · Science education · Climate change ·
Case One: U.S. universities are debating how to respond to the recently passed
America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Provide Excellence in Technology,
Education, and Science Act (America COMPETES Act). This Congressional directive
requires that “each institution that applies for ﬁnancial assistance from the Founda-
tion [the National Science Foundation (NSF)] for science and engineering research
or education describe in its grant proposal a plan to 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
plan” (United States Congress 2007, Sect. 7009).
N. Tuana (
Department of Philosophy, Penn State University, 240 Sparks, University Park, PA 16802, USA
472 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
Case Two: As scientiﬁc evidence mounts, providing a better understanding of the
nature and impact of anthropocentric climate change, the global community is facing
a complex set of decisions regarding how to respond. While we are already see-
ing unavoidable impacts and are likely to experience far more in the not too distant
future, decisions nations and communities make about energy and life-style choices
in the next few years will have an impact on the severity of future harms. The Kyoto
Protocol, the international environmental treaty designed to stabilize greenhouse gas
concentrations at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference
with the climate system,” expires in 2012 (United Nations 1992, Article 2). The ﬁf-
teenth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change, which occurred in Copenhagen in December 2009, led to the Copen-
hagen Accord, which endorses continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, but is not a legally
binding document. As a result negotiations are continuing throughout 2010 in the
hopes of securing a legally binding international climate agreement at COP 16 in
In this essay I argue that philosophers of science are missing important opportunities
to contribute to essential dialogues and make a positive impact on our communities.
From our own institutions to national and international policy, the insights of philoso-
phers of science have the potential to make vital contributions to many important and
essential realms of science, from pedagogy to international policy. Although I focus
in this essay on two speciﬁc case studies, these are intended to be illustrative of the
value of enlarging the scope of our work and developing a more robust appreciation
of the usefulness of the role philosophers of science can play if we embrace a richer
conception of the nature and role of philosophy of science.
In the ﬁrst section of the essay, I argue that the America COMPETES Act provides
philosophers of science in the U.S. with a perfect opportunity to make important and
heretofore relatively neglected contributions to science curriculum, and to do so in
a way that makes clear the important role of philosophy of science in advancing an
understanding of scientiﬁc practice. My position is that we cannot have an adequate
impact on science education and practice by limiting our contributions to scholar-
ship about science, but, like many bioethicists, must also partner with scientists in the
classroom as well as on the research team. In the second half of the essay, I develop
an analysis of the value, importance, and urgency of philosophers of science contrib-
uting to t he development of scientifically informed policy. I illustrate my claims by
arguing for the important contributions philosophers of s cience could make to climate
change policy development and contend that a more adequate approach to philosophy
of science emerges from efforts to impact policy.
1 Leading with ethics
As universities respond to the America COMPETES Act, the most typical response
is to focus on traditional Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) topics: research
misconduct; authorship; conﬂicts of interest; data management; animal welfare; and
human subject protections. While these topics, and the typical approach to training
scientists proper “procedures,” are certainly important, t his vision of research ethics is
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 473
far too limited a venue to convey an appreciation of the full spectrum of ethics relevant
to scientiﬁc research.
Although research ethics may seem a strange place to begin an argument for a more
robust approach to philosophy of science, I will argue that they are in fact an excellent
venue for illustrating the important contributions philosophers of science can make to
the practice of science, particularly at a time, at least in the U.S. context, when govern-
mental agencies and universities alike are demanding more attention to research ethics.
The second section of this part of the essay will be devoted to a brief discussion
of a more adequate model of research ethics, one for which the contributions of phi-
losophers of science would be essential. The aim of the discussion is to illustrate an
important role for philosophers of science in working with scientists to identify and
appreciate the full range of ethical issues relevant to scientiﬁc practice.
I will begin, however, with a brief discussion of ethics research relevant to NIH
related research. Before providing an account of the value of philosophers of science
embracing the ﬁeld of research ethics, I believe we can learn s ome valuable lessons
from the ﬁeld of bioethics, which provides a model, as well as a cautionary tale, as we
philosophers of science consider our role in responding to initiatives such as America
1.1 The example of bioethics
The NIH made an early commitment to human subject protections well before the
emergence of the ﬁrst bioethics centers at Hastings and Georgetown (Fletcher 1995).
In 1973 the National Institute of General Medical Sciences provided support for the
study of the ethical, legal, and social issues in genetic screening and prenatal diagnosis.
The idea of setting aside a percentage of the NIH’s annual budget to fund studies of
ethical issues was proposed as early as 1983 by Charles McCarthy, head of the NIH
Ofﬁce of Protection from Research Risks, and Mortimer Lipsett, director of the NIH
Clinical Center. The proposal was not funded, but it became an early model for the
Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) Program of the National Center for
Human Genome Research in 1989.
This commitment to a broad notion of r esearch ethics provided the impetus for
the rise of bioethics as a ﬁeld within the United States. Bioethics initially focused
on clinical issues and was eventually widely integrated into medical curriculum. In
the last decade, bioethics has begun to incorporate a more global perspective and has
expanded its venues to include such topics as public health issues and questions of
food safety and security, as well as health related questions of distributive justice from
a global perspective. I would note, however, that critics of bioethics, particularly as
it is practiced in the United States, argue that the clinical focus still dominates the
ﬁeld and bioethicists still remain all too silent regarding issues of social justice and
collective responsibility (Benatar and Fleischer 2006). Some bioethicists are beginning
to urge an even more robust broadening of the ﬁeld. Normal Daniels, to take just one
example, urges that bioethics deepen its engagement with methods like cost-beneﬁt
analysis in order to ensure that policies and practices are attentive to issues of equity
and distribution (Daniels 2006).
474 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
In addition to America COMPETES, the past decade has witnessed a heightened
interest in research on ethics and science and engineering from the NSF that can be
seen as parallel to the NIH’s commitment to ethics. Recent funding opportunities pro-
vided by the NSF’s Ethics Education in Science and Engineering (EESE), the Ethics
and Values Studies (EVS) components of the Societal Dimensions of Engineering,
Science, and Technology (SDEST) program, and the Science, Technology, and Soci-
ety program (STS) testify to the growing importance of attention to ethics within the
NSF. While these funding opportunities are admittedly significantly lower than those
provided by the NIH’s ELSI Program, it is nonetheless troubling that these opportu-
nities have not been actively embraced by philosophers of science as an opportunity
to enhance and expand the impact of our work. In this portion of the essay, I will
argue that this is a lost opportunity. As I will demonstrate, attention to the various and
complex ethical issues relevant to scientiﬁc practice is a way to build on the strengths
of philosophy of science and make our work far more relevant to scientists, as well as
Having said this, I would also stress that as we move to engage with the questions
animating NSF’s recent attention to ethics, we must be cautious not to respond simply
with approaches from applied ethics, as has typically been the case with bioethics. I
think there are a number of lessons, both positive and negative, to be learned from
bioethics as we move to consider how philosophers of science can richly contribute
to such policy decisions as the America COMPETES Act, as well as research and
practice surrounding research ethics. In addition, as I will argue in the second half of
the essay, philosophers of science can and should collaborate with scientists to address
global problems such as climate change both within the context of scientiﬁc research
as well as through providing resources for scientifically informed, epistemically and
ethically responsible policy development.
Let me begin with the positive lessons to carry from the ﬁeld of bioethics
Lesson 1: Bioethics is most effective when the practitioner is knowledgeable not only
in the ﬁeld of ethics, but also in the relevant scientiﬁc discipline, i.e., medicine, neu-
roscience, or some other ﬁeld in the life sciences.
Erich and Roberta Springer Loewy, for example, stress that bioethics, at its best, is a
richly interdisciplinary ﬁeld. When practiced within the healthcare context, they argue
that bioethicists must not only be trained in the relevant philosophical approaches, but
must also understand the “physiology and disease process and have experienced what
it is like to make decisions that may spell life or death,” as well understand the context
in which medicine is practice. They argue “it is also very important that, in addition,
bioethicists know something about the sociology of medicine and some anthropology
(at least be sensitive to the fact that health, disease and cure mean different things in
different cultures), have some idea of the law as it pertains to medicine and, above all,
understand the economic and cultural suffering of their fellowman” (2005, pp. 77–78).
In this regard, philosophy of science and bioethics are very similar. Philosophy of
science, as a ﬁeld, has been committed to practitioners being knowledgeable in the
Here I am referring to bioethics at its best. I readily admit that these claims are not true of all work in the
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 475
ﬁeld of science they research as well as appreciating the social contexts in which that
science was practiced.
Lesson 2 : The focus of bioethics scholarship has been directed to actual problems
within the contexts of medicine or public health.
Bioethics scholarship has a wide range, but it includes research designed to assist
healthcare practitioners and researchers make decisions “in the ﬁeld,” so to speak.
From better appreciating informed consent and what practices might encourage or
obstruct it, to the creation of guidelines for ensuring proper ethical review of biomedi-
cal research, to research on the ethical challenges for public health ofﬁcials, healthcare
professionals, and the general public arising from the AIDS epidemic, bioethicists have
worked to contribute directly to practice and to policy. These contributions have been
encouraged by the fact that many bioethics positions are in or afﬁliated with Col-
leges of Medicine and have as a major component of their aim to collaborate with
The focus of scholarship in the philosophy of science, with only a few exceptions,
is not designed to assist scientists to “make decisions in the ﬁeld.”
And it is even
less common to have philosophers of science partnering with scientists on research or
even on pedagogy. As I will argue in this essay, this is a mistake. And it is a mistake
for many reasons. First of all, such partnerships would augment both areas of schol-
arship. Not only would philosophers of science learn from working with scientists in
the ﬁeld, as is evidenced by the wealth of knowledge cultivated by those who engaged
in careful lab studies,
but scientists would also learn from philosophers in ways that
promise to open up new and exciting avenues for research,
as well as augmenting
the science to policy relationship. In this respect, the bioethics model of collaboration
and partnership is something philosophers of science should strive to replicate.
Lesson 3 : Bioethics as a ﬁeld has been interested not only in communicating with
healthcare providers but also with policy-makers.
The most well known example of this lesson in the context of U.S. bioethics is the
participation of bioethicists on the National Bioethics Advisory Committee (NBAC).
The NBAC was established in 1995 to advise governmental entities on bioethical issues
arising from research on human biology and behavior. It has advised the government
on various issues including the protection of human participants in research, stem cell
research, cloning, and clinical trials in developing countries. In addition, bioethicists
serve on ethics boards of hospitals as well as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) of
their home institutions.
In this arena, philosophy of science lags far behind bioethics. It is extremely rare
for philosophers of science in the U.S. to be selected to participate on science advi-
sory committees. Unlike bioethics, where the government has recognized that there
are bioethical issues facing biomedical researchers as well as policy-makers, no such
recognition has occurred with science advisory committees. Nor have philosophers of
The work of Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Carl Cranor, and Heather Douglas are the most obvious
As just two of many examples see the work of Traweek (1988)andKnorr Cetina (1999).
This is evidenced by my own work in the ﬁeld of climate science. See, e.g. Schienke et al. (2010)
476 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
science succeeded in demonstrating the value of our work to these committees. While
there have been efforts, such as those of social epistemologists who have argued for
the value of what Steven Fuller (1993) has called “knowledge policy,” namely, the
study of what kinds of knowledge are desirable and how such knowledges can best
be produced, assessed, and circulated, as well as calls for a philosophy of science
policy (Mitcham and Frodeman 2004), few philosophers of science have embraced
this important ﬁeld of study.
This is, I contend, another lost opportunity. We must not
only direct more of our attention to the applicability of our work in philosophy of sci-
ence for policy, but also learn how to communicate our results to multiple audiences,
including policy makers.
As a model, however, bioethics is not unequivocally inspirational. There are impor-
tant negative lessons and cautions to carry away from this model, particularly if we
focus on the history of bioethics in the United States. Here I mention two:
Caution One: While the clinical domain is a valuable one, it has overshadowed global
health issues, such as the huge inequities in health between nations or attention to
public health issues at both a local and a global level. This unbalanced focus has
obscured many important links between environmental or social impacts and health
issues, and has led to a truncated understanding of health and health care in both
international and national contexts.
Paul Farmer has been one of the most effective and outspoken critics of business as
usual bioethics. He argues that despite the fact that the majority of “international bio-
medical research has inequity as its foundation,” little attention is paid to these issues
(Farmer and Campos 2004,p.22).InPathologies of Power (2004), Farmer cites the
example of the recent (1994–1998) Ugandan study in which 15,000 HIV-positive indi-
viduals were studied to determine the relationship between various factors, such as
serum viral load, concurrent STDs, and male circumcision, on HIV transmission. None
of the volunteers in the study were offered treatment such as antiretroviral therapy,
nor were their sex partners informed that the research subjects were HIV positive. He
argues that such a research protocol would have never been accepted if the study had
been proposed for a population from a developed nation.
Farmer clearly voiced a concern that has been echoed by others when he argued
that contemporary bioethics lacks a social justice perspective, without which it “risks
becoming yet another strategy for managing inequality” (Farmer 2004, p. 201). Farmer
argues that bioethics must always be done with attention to historical, economic, and
cultural contexts. Furthermore, he argues that we must balance the current focus on
individuals in clinical settings to the larger national and international issues that face
us as nations and as members of a global community such as how to assure effective
and affordable healthcare to all. Watching congress debating Obama’s health care plan
is a clear reminder that this is an issue that is a challenge even in developed countries,
but it is even more taxing an issue for underdeveloped nations with far fewer resources.
Nor has bioethics as a ﬁeld been attentive to the ways in which environmental
issues and health issues overlap in crucial respects. Critics such as Paul Ehrlich have
argued that the ﬁeld of bioethics must be expanded from its current focus on medical
Again, the previously cited theorists are amongst the exceptions. My point is not that no one is doing this
work, but that far too few philosophers of science have embraced the importance of this work.
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 477
issues to include attention to ethical issues involving environmental degradation, as
well as “the ethics of preserving capital for future generations and those of dealing
with overconsumption” (2003, p. 1207). From pesticides to anthropocentric climate
change, the health of the environment and human health are intertwined in ways that
have been largely ignored by the ﬁeld of bioethics.
What I will advocate i n this essay is what I call an embedded philosophy of sci-
ence, that is, a practice in which philosophers of science are part of scientiﬁc and
engineering teams, participating in the process of r esearch design and practice and
are partners in ﬁeld and lab studies, as well as working with scientists and engineers
at the intersections of science and policy. In thinking about how best to encourage
more philosophers of science to take on this role, I believe we can both learn from
bioethicists, but must also take care not to be limited in the scope of our interactions.
It is for this reason, I will argue that embedded philosophers of science must tend not
only to issues of responsible conduct of research when interacting with scientists, but
be involved in ethical issues deeply embedded in the practice of science, as well as
attending to issues of science’s and engineering’s impact on society. In addition, we
need embedded philosophers of science when scientists and engineers are working on
global as well as local issues, and particularly when a topic demands a richly interdis-
ciplinary research team to address an issue or when a research topic has an especially
immediate link to policy.
Caution Two: Bioethics as a ﬁeld has, with only a few exceptions, overlooked impor-
tant research questions and opportunities to make important contributions due to its
general absence of attention to epistemological issues within medicine and public
health and how these intersect with questions of ethics and equity.
Rather than citing a negative example of this caution from bioethics, it is more
helpful to offer an illustration of what philosophy of science can contribute. There
are two ﬁne examples: Kristin Shrader-Frechette’s careful analysis of risk associated
with nuclear waste in Burying Uncertainty (1993) and Carl Cranor’s work on toxic
substances in Regulating Toxic Substances (1993). Both authors bring in tools from
philosophy of science and epistemology to examine ethical issues involved in such
topics as risk assessment, establishing responsibility, and action in the face of scientiﬁc
uncertainty. The nature and importance of the work is well summarized in Shrader-
Frechette’s statement in Burying Uncertainty that “we ought to use philosophy of
science, epistemology, and ethics to help shape contemporary science, public policy,
and democratic thought” (1993, p. xiii).
This pairing of philosophy of science, epistemology, and ethics in the service of
public policy is exactly what I am advocating in this essay. The ﬁrst case, namely,
the demand from the NSF and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and
Medicine) agencies for more robust attention to research ethics, i s one example of
a venue in which this pairing of philosophy of science, epistemology, and ethics
has the potential to both enhance and extend the domain of philosophy of science
and, in the process, ensure the depth of analysis and insight that the topic of research
ethics deserves. The contributions of philosophers of science would transform research
The recent work of Miriam Solomon on the epistemology of medicine is an exception to this rule. See,
for example, Solomon (2007).
478 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
ethics from its current state as a domain largely populated by Institutional Review
Board (IRB) staff who are largely focused on compliance, into a ﬁeld of study that has
the same reach and value as bioethics, while at the same time potentially avoiding the
limitations of current practices of bioethics. However, and as I will argue in the next
two sections, to accomplish this the scope of research ethics must also be expanded
well beyond the typical attention to Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) issues.
1.2 The broader impacts criterion
At the same time that the NSF has been pushing for more robust training in research
ethics, it has arguably led the way in requiring scientists to attend to the broader impacts
of their work. The NSF’s Second Merit Criterion was introduced in 1997 as the result
of an earlier Congressional movement to enhance the accountability and responsibility
as well as the effectiveness of federally funded projects. The 1993 Government Per-
formance Results Act (GPRA) required federal agencies to measure the effectiveness
of their programs. Part of the NSF’s response was to streamline their review crite-
ria from the original four criteria to the two criteria that are now used to assess grant
applications. The ﬁrst of these criteria focuses on the intellectual merit of the proposed
project and research capability and capacity of the investigators; the second criterion
requires consideration of the broader social impacts of the research.
The mission of the NSF has always included attention to the broader impacts of
science. However, by streamlining the criteria into intellectual merits and broader
impacts, and adopting the policy of not reviewing proposals that do not explicitly
address both criteria, the changes have had the effect of focusing attention on the
broader impacts criterion.
As was set out in the National Science Foundation Act
of 1950 (Public Law 810507), the NSF aims “To promote the progress of science; to
advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense;
and for other purposes.”
The NSF identiﬁed the following as desirable outcomes from its investments:
• Discoveries at and across the frontier of science and engineering;
• Connections between discoveries and their use in service to society;
• A diverse, globally-oriented workforce of scientists and engineers;
• Improved achievement in mathematics and science skills needed by all Americans;
• Timely and relevant information on the national and international science and
engineering enterprise (National Science Foundation 1997 ).
As is clear from this list, the NSF’s mission is to balance excellence in scientiﬁc and
engineering research with the broader impacts of t hat research upon (i) the educational
and research infrastructure, (ii) the diversity of the ﬁelds themselves, as well as (iii)
supporting projects with positive social impact.
See, for example, Mervis (2001) and the NSF’s response, National Science Foundation (2002).
The second merit criterion emphasized components of the original Criterion Three: Utility and Rele-
vance of Research, and Criterion Four: Effect on Infrastructure of Science and Engineering; with two new
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 479
Neither philosophy of science nor philosophy in general has taken advantage of this
movement within the NSF through contributing to a better understanding of how best
to achieve these outcomes or a philosophical examination of the value of the NSF’s
goals. It is particularly surprising that despite more than a decade since the NSF imple-
mented these new criteria, and a wealth of work in the area of feminist epistemology
and philosophy of science that has focused on the epistemic importance of diversity
within science, little has been done to link this work explicitly to the broader impacts
The America COMPETES Act provides a new opportunity for philosophers of sci-
ence to contribute to the NSF. In the next Sect. 1 provide an admittedly brief overview
of one approach that weds issues of ethics with methods and insights from the philos-
ophy of science to provide a model that would enable this new Act to develop into far
more than an empty compliance exercise.
As research universities move to respond to the America COMPETES require-
ments, the focus is all too often limited to Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR)
While I do not deny the importance of RCR issues, they are
far too limited to provide a basis for scientists and engineers to appreciate the full
range of ethical issues they face. Here I suggest that a more robust model, what I and
my colleagues have labeled the Ethical Dimensions of Scientiﬁc Research (EDSR)
(Schienke et al. 2009), provides a more adequate model of the ethical literacy needed
by scientists and engineers, and provides an opportunity for philosophers of science
to help develop ethics training responsive to epistemic concerns.
1.3 Ethical dimensions of scientiﬁc research
The EDSR model, while incorporating RCR topics and training, recognizes that these
typically constitute only one domain of ethics relevant to STEM research. RCR training
is particularly limited in domains where ethical issues and value choices are embedded
within the content of science as I will explain below, but such training also typically
overlooks ethical issues relating to the impact of scientiﬁc research on society and
thus provides inadequate training relevant to the NSF second criterion. The EDSR
model identiﬁes three domains of research ethics. In what follows, I will deﬁne each
domain and provide an initial discussion of the potential contributions of philosophers
of science (Fig. 1).
• Procedural ethics: ethical aspects of the process of conducting scientiﬁc research,
such as: falsiﬁcation, fabrication, and plagiarism; care for subjects (human and
non-human animal); responsible authorship issues; analysis of and care for data;
Footnote 8 continued
concerns, namely, (i) broadening the participation of underrepresented groups and (ii) promoting teaching,
training, and learning.
I would note that a forthcoming special issue of Social Epistemology devoted to the NSF Broader Impacts
Criterion promises to correct some of these omissions.
See, for example, Penn State’s Scholarship and Research Integrity (SARI) program at http://www.
480 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
Fig. 1 Diagram of the Ethical Dimensions of Scientiﬁc Research model of a broader conception of
and conﬂicts of interests. Procedural ethics is contained almost entirely within the
currently deﬁned goals of RCR.
There is certainly a role that philosophers of science can play in this domain of
research ethics, particularly in the context of better identifying the ways in which
interests can pose a conﬂict to research objectivity, the relationship between trust and
the interests of science, as well as aspects of data management. However, in compar-
ison to the other domains of research ethics, RCR issues are more transparent and
RCR educators have over the past decade developed pedagogical skills in this arena.
Let me stress that although I do not want to preclude a positive role for philosophers
of science in this domain of research ethics and I would be delighted if this essay
encourages others to identify and implement important contributions of philosophy of
science to this domain of research ethics, my argument in this essay is that it is in the
next two domains that our skills and expertise are essential.
• Extrinsic ethics: ethical issues that are external to the production of scientiﬁc
research. These arise, for example, when considering the impact of scientiﬁc
research on society; e.g., the effects of technological innovations on social ends
such as health and well-being, whether pressing social and economic issues
are likely to be addressed and if so, who beneﬁts, and the role of science in
policy-making. This domain of ethics also includes ethical concerns arising from
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 481
the impact of society upon science, for example the impact of funding on research
trajectories or the ways in which wide-spread societal biases can impact research
trajectories, as they arguably did with eugenics research. In the latter case, there
are often links between the domains of extrinsic and intrinsic ethics.
The second domain, extrinsic ethics, is most relevant to NSF’s second merit criterion
and provides ample opportunity for valuable contributions by philosophers of science.
Questions that philosophers of science might address specifically related to the broader
impacts criterion include: (i) Is the second criterion which demands attention to soci-
etal beneﬁt in tension with the ﬁrst criterion of intellectual merit?; (ii) Is the demand
for a diverse, globally-oriented workforce of scientists and engineers simply a matter
of justice or are there also epistemic beneﬁts?; (iii) Are there adequate measures for
assessing components of the second criterion?; and the like.
But the value of philosophy of science for this domain of STEM ethics is not limited
to the second criterion. The domain of extrinsic ethics calls for more careful attention
to a host of issues including, but certainly not limited to:
• proper interpretation and application of the precautionary principle;
• furthering epistemically and ethically adequate societal understandings of issues
of scientiﬁc uncertainty and risk;
• the role of s cientists in the development of policy relevant research;
• the ethical responsibilities of scientists whose research reveals risks, for example,
to human health or ecosystem sustainability.
My point here is that this domain of EDSR is ripe for research informed by philosophy
of science perspectives. In many of these cases the links between ethical and epistemic
concerns are inextricable and can only be unraveled through the efforts of those trained
in the ﬁeld of philosophy of science and well-schooled in the relevant sciences.
• Intrinsic ethics: ethical issues and values that are embedded in or otherwise inter-
nal to the production of scientiﬁc research and analysis. These involve ethical
issues arising from, for example: the choice of certain equations, constants, and
variables; analysis of data; handling of error, and degree of conﬁdence in projec-
The third domain of EDSR, intrinsic ethics is another ﬁeld requiring the expertise of
philosophers of science. The identiﬁcation of values and assumptions that are embed-
ded in the very context of hypothesis development, data gathering and analysis, gov-
erning equations, models, strategies for addressing uncertainty, and the like, and the
full analysis of their ethical and epistemic import is an excellent ﬁt with the work of
philosophers of science. Furthermore, I believe that the study of the domain of intrinsic
ethics will not be fully successful unless it includes the expertise of philosophers of
science. It is only when this domain becomes a focus of our ﬁeld, that the range of
relevant issues and their ethical and epistemic significance will be fully appreciated.
I would stress that although I have presented each ﬁeld of research ethics as a sep-
arate domain, there are often instances where the ethical significance of the problem
crosses between the various domains. Hence the employment of a Venn diagram to
represent the EDSR. In fact, though I do not have the space to develop this claim in
this essay, I believe that some of the most interesting coupled ethical-epistemic issues,
482 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
and those most in need of study by philosophers of science, are those that are at the
intersections of two or more of these domains. For example, the choice of research
questions often falls within the intersection of intrinsic and extrinsic ethics. Another
example arises out of current work of the scientiﬁc team of which I am a member
regarding the decision by climate scientists not to include data on ice sheets into the
integrated assessment models (IAMs) regarding sea-level rise until the data is more
robust. This decision, while it may have epistemic grounding, results in the models
being overconﬁdent (intrinsic coupled epistemic-ethical issues), which in turn has an
impact on how this aspect of climate science is deployed to inform adaptation policy
such as decisions to build levees or dykes in coastal cities (extrinsic).
To further clarify these ideas and claims, the next section provides a more robust
analysis of a case study that involves both intrinsic and extrinsic ethics in order to
clarify these two conceptions of ethics and further illustrate my claims. This example
also provides the transition to the second section of the paper, that is, on the role of
philosophy of science for science policy.
2 Aiming for policy: climate change research
In my own work with climate scientists, we have focused on clarifying how climate
models, which deal with high levels of uncertainty about future climate impacts, imbed
values and assumptions that are ethically and epistemically salient. Since this research
in turn informs policy development, policy-makers must also make decisions under
conditions of uncertainty. Given this, it is crucial that the uncertainties embedded in
climate science be carefully quantiﬁed and communicated. Indeed, scientists are well
aware that “without explicit efforts to quantify the likelihood of future events, users of
scientiﬁc results (including policy-makers) will undoubtedly make their own assump-
tions about the probability of different outcomes, possibly in ways that the original
authors did not intend” (Mastrandrea and Schneider 2004, p. 571).
In order to illustrate the nature and importance of intrinsic ethics, my colleagues
and I have developed a series of case study analyses designed to identify the values
embedded in scientiﬁc research on climate change risks and examine the ethical and
epistemic import of such values. In the following sections, I discuss two of these
case studies: (i) integrated assessment models (IAMs) used in the context of climate
change science and (ii) cost-beneﬁt analysis (CBAs) used to make policy decisions
about climate change investments. My examples are designed to demonstrate not only
the importance of attention to intrinsic values and the role of philosophy of science in
this endeavor, but also the value of this focus for policy.
2.1 Integrated assessment models
A substantial and growing body of scientiﬁc evidence reveals that anthropogenic emis-
sions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have changed the Earth’s radiative
balance, leading to global warming. Temperatures have already risen 1 .4
F since the
beginning of the twentieth century, though much of this warming happened in the
last 30 years. Scientists predict that these temperatures will continue to rise, with
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 483
predictions ranging from 2
F over the next one 100 years. These changes to
the global climate are projected to cause increasingly serious consequences. While
current generations are not untouched by climate change impacts, the risks are highest
for future generations (Bernstein et al. 2008, p. 104).
It is certainly true that the magnitude of climatic change will be difﬁcult to pro-
ject. The global biogeochemical cycles involved are complex and made all the more
complicated by the socioeconomic systems that impact them. However, the gravity
of the ethical considerations at stake in making decisions about how t o respond to
our current understanding of climate change is underscored by the general agreement
that anthropogenic climate change is highly likely to threaten the basic rights of many
individuals (see, e.g., Adger 2004; Caney 2006; Sachs 2006). The likely harms of
climate change include dramatic and quick changes in precipitation patterns leading
to ﬂoods in some regions and droughts in others, sea-level rise, ocean acidiﬁcation,
and changes in the distribution of vector-borne diseases.
Furthermore, we know that the harms and beneﬁts of anthropogenic climate change
will not be equally distributed across groups or regions. The severity of the impact will
“depend to an important degree on social, economic, governance and other forces that
determine who and what are exposed to climate hazards, their sensitivities and their
capacities” (Leary et al. 2008, p. 4). The burdens of climate change and risks of threats
to basic rights are estimated to be higher for those individuals and communities who
are worse off in terms of income, education, and/or social status (Louis and Hess 2008;
Schneider et al. 2007; Shue 2003; Vanderheiden 2008). Threats to basic rights are, for
example, often elevated for those in developing countries that have high vulnerability
to the impact of climatic events on food security, ﬂooding, or exposure to new health
risks (Gardiner 2006; Paavola and Adger 2006; Parks and Roberts 2006).
Although the problem is often framed in terms of future impacts, it is important to
appreciate that we are already experiencing harms from anthropogenic climate change
impacts, harms that are not equally distributed. To take just one example, estimates
of current mortality rates related to anthropocentric climate change show higher rates
in low-income regions such as Africa compared to higher income regions such as the
U.S. or Western Europe ( Louis and Hess 2008). As we increasingly experience more
of the impacts of climate change, not only will there be winners and losers, but the eco-
nomic and social vulnerabilities of poorer countries are likely to be worsened by these
impacts. The issues we face then involve both inter- and well as intra-generational
Our research team has been working to examine integrated assessment models
(IAMs) that are used in the context of climate change.
This ﬁeld has been develop-
ing rapidly over the past two decades with IAMs employed (i) to i nform policy and
decision-making regarding responses to climate change; (ii) as a method for better
understanding and assessing uncertainties and risks; and (iii) as a tool for scientiﬁc
The lead PI on this research is Klaus Keller, Associate Professor of Geosciences. Ken Davis, Professor
of Meteorology has also been an active participant. Our research has been enhanced through the careful
research of a small group of postdocs and graduate researchers including Marlos Goes, Erich Schienks, and
484 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
research that focuses on complex system interactions, such as biosphere-atmosphere
linkages or linkages between socioeconomic and biophysical processes.
IAMs that couple scientiﬁc and socio-economic aspects of climate change are
widely used in the context of climate policy development to balance costs to society
with decisions regarding mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adapta-
tion (responding to unavoidable and unavoided climate changes, say through dikes or
altered farming techniques). Delaying mitigation or adaptation responses may, on the
one hand, increase the risks of dangerous and potentially irreversible anthropogenic
interference with the climate. On the other hand, moving too swiftly may cause eco-
nomic harms if we transfer funding from solving other problems such as poverty or
basic health needs, and/or result in higher costs in not delaying until we have more
viable technological options that provide a more cost-effective method for mitigation.
IAMs are used to help make decisions in these complex contexts and are also used to
help select from the various mitigation and adaptation strategies that are available.
According to Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC), nations must strive to ensure the “stabilization of greenhouse gas
concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropo-
genic interference with the climate system…within a time frame sufﬁcient to allow
ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not
threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”
(United Nations 1992). There is considerable uncertainty surrounding what constitutes
dangerous anthropogenic interference and a number of decision points that must be
made in developing an IAM. To clarify the role of intrinsic ethics, and, in particular,
the value decisions that are made in the development and deployment of a model,
I will focus on one of the many decision points that must be made in framing an IAM.
One area of uncertainty surrounding climate change concerns climate sensitivity.
The answer plays a l arge role in determining how s erious the consequences of global
warming will be. Predicting the sensitivity of the climate to changes in CO
trations is a central focus of climate science and is the basis for making predictions
regarding the severity of climate change related impacts. One common measure of
climate sensitivity is the amount by which global mean surface temperature would
change once the system has settled into a new equilibrium following a doubling of
the pre-industrial CO
concentration. The uncertainty arises from the complexity of
feedbacks (from clouds, water vapor, ice-albedo, etc). Without feedback, a doubling
would result in a 1
C global warming; but the complexity of the feedback
precludes a ﬁxed answer. According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, “it is
likely to be in the range of 2
C with a best estimate of about 3
C, and is
very unlikely to be less than 1.5
C. Values substantially higher than 4.5
C cannot be
excluded, but agreement of models with observations is not as good for those values”
(IPCC 2007, p. 12).
Climate sensitivities are a key to responsible policy-making. The projected climate
sensitivity is a measure of how much CO
and other warming gases can be emitted
The ﬁrst assessment model of a global environmental issue involved acid rain. See Alcamo et al. (1990).
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 485
without risking serious impacts, or conversely the severity of the impacts we or future
generations are likely to face should we fail to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases.
A decision that must be made in developing an IAM is how to factor in the
climate sensitivities higher than 4.5
C. While the climate sensitivity is very unlikely
to be above 4.5
C, sensitivities higher than 4.5
C would result in very high negative
impacts. In addition to impacts such as sea level rise and ecosystem disruptions, high
climate sensitivities are more likely to be associated with extreme events such as a
thermohaline circulation collapse which would result in major alterations in precipi-
tation patterns. These ‘high-impact, low-probability’ events present climate modelers
with a decision point. They are, as their very name implies, not very likely to reﬂect
how our climate will respond, but their impacts are of such high magnitude that they
could make adaptation or ecosystem survival very difﬁcult.
One decision point that must be faced in designing an IAM is whether or not (and
how best) to include the possibility that climate sensitivities are higher than 4.5
This is exactly the type of choice where attention to the complex intersections of epi-
stemic and ethical issues by philosophers of science would be of tremendous value.
One concern that some climate scientists are beginning to discuss is how ignoring
such low probability, high impact events in models, a quite commonplace practice in
climate modeling, can result in research being biased towards overconﬁdent climate
change projections (Mastrandrea and Schneider 2004; Schneider 2001; Urban and
Keller 2009; Goes et al.. forthcoming). Theorists who focus on climate policy have
begun to argue for the importance of including these low probability, high impact
events into models on the grounds that not doing so is to overlook what is poten-
tially the most important aspect of any analysis of the economics of climate change
In addition to serious attention to the value of including such events, philosophers
of science would have an important role in these debates through examining whether
and when models need not include such events. For example, must we always include
these events in I AMs when one is engaged in policy-relevant science or are there
exceptions? Are there examples of IAMs designed for understanding complex bio-
physical processes where these high impact, low probability events can be ignored
without epistemic or ethical cost? Will the inclusion of such events require different
models? And so on. Philosophers of science can play an invaluable role in identifying
key sources of overconﬁdence and helping to critically reevaluate previous studies to
help determine when omitting low probability, high impact events in the context of
climate change science and/or policy can lead to poor decision making. This type of
transparency would not only lead to better policy-making, but would also be likely to
reveal significant questions in need of further scientiﬁc analysis.
Although admittedly quick, my aim here is to illustrate the value and importance
of philosophers of science engaging in analyses of intrinsic ethics with the goal of
ensuring that all science, but particularly policy-relevant science, is as transparent
as possible concerning embedded values and their intertwined epistemic and ethical
In the next and ﬁnal Sect. 1 outline a preliminary analysis of the importance of
philosophers of science following in the footsteps of bioethicists and embracing a far
more robust role in the policy realm. As valuable as it is to develop an analysis of the
486 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
domain of intrinsic ethics, philosophers of science can make important contributions
to policy debates by helping policy makers and the public better understand the often
coupled epistemic-ethical issues relevant to policy choice. Given this, I would urge
that we ensure that our work is framed so as to be of beneﬁt in this arena. In other
words, we need to both make sure that we translate our own policy-relevant research
in ways that are helpful to the realm of policy and ensure that our work also tracks
and analyzes the policy debates themselves.
2.2 Philosophy of science (for) policy
I intend this essay to be a prolegomena to a future philosophy of science. In this
ﬁnal section, I provide a brief overview of the value of philosophy of science for cli-
mate policy and some ideas arising from my own participation in the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change about how to proceed.
Science policy is the arena in which our work could make important and essential
contributions. And here I would argue that we can learn from climate scientists and
bioethicists alike in making sure that we focus at least some of our efforts on policy rel-
evant research. To underscore this point I will provide an admittedly brief overview of
a second example of research that is attentive to issues of intrinsic ethics, namely, work
our research team has conducted on models of climate change cost-beneﬁt analyses
which examines how different prescriptive ethical assumptions produce initial starting
conditions for the model which result in distinctly different descriptive outcomes.
2.2.1 Intrinsic ethics and cost-beneﬁt analysis
The model we analyze, namely cost-beneﬁt analysis (CBA), is a standard tool in
many arenas, and has become an important instrument that is often used in analyzing
potential responses to climate change in an effort to determine which of the possible
response options is “optimal,” i.e., which response is best for society. As a case study
of intrinsic ethics, our research is designed to illustrate how cost-beneﬁt analysis in the
context of climate change modeling embeds a set of ethical assumptions or decisions
that are intrinsic to the analysis, and to demonstrate how descriptive analyses can be
constrained by prescriptive assumptions.
CBA research is designed to identify actions that will have the largest overall ben-
eﬁts for society. This is determined by calculating total beneﬁts minus total costs.
There are a variety of methods for structuring and interpreting CBAs depending on
how costs and/or beneﬁts are deﬁned, measured, or aggregated.
In our study we examine the Ramsey-Koopmans-Cass “optimal growth” model
(henceforth the RKC model) of CBA, the speciﬁc form of CBAs used in climate
What we aim to demonstrate is that there are a series of value decisions
This following discussion is based on our forthcoming essay (Schienke et al. 2010) which contains a
more detailed account of this case study.
The RKC model is built on the dynamic optimization work of Ramsey (1928), Koopmans (1965), and
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 487
which have ethical significance embedded in the use of CBAs. The most obvious and
generally agreed upon assumption, as noted by Amartya Sen, is that all forms of CBA
assume a form of consequentialism, taking for granted that an aggregation of costs and
beneﬁts is an adequate technique for determining which actions are to be preferred
or avoided. “The basic rationale of cost-beneﬁt analysis lies in the idea that things
are worth doing if the beneﬁts resulting from doing them outweigh the costs” (2000,
Climate change CBA models are used to determine climate management strategies
that optimize “utility,” a measure of time-aggregated societal wealth. But decisions
also have to be made regarding threshold constraints. For example, McInerney and
Keller (2008) add an inviolable constraint, not found in other models (cf. Nordhaus
1992). In the McInerny and Keller model it is impermissible to exceed a certain proba-
bility of triggering a collapse in the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation
In their model the MOC constraint must be satisﬁed, regardless of the impli-
cations for the total net beneﬁts. In our analysis we argue that the difference between
the two approaches, namely, whether to represent the MOC threshold or not, is both a
function of description within the governing equation as well as a difference in values
(Schienke et al. 2010).
We use the comparison of these two models as a vehicle to engage climate science
graduate students in identifying intrinsic ethical issues embedded in these and other
climate change models as a way to help them appreciate the ethical choices they make
in their own work. This helps these emerging scientists appreciate, for example, the
embedded assumptions involved in the definition of global utility in CBAs, namely
that optimizing global utility, summed over time, does not distinguish between a pop-
ulation that consists of both the wealthy and the poor, that is, where consumption i s
not equally distributed, and a population where consumption i s equally distributed, as
long as the globally aggregated utility in these situations is the same. Other examples
that involve values are the choices of the utility discount rate and the elasticity param-
eter. Values are also often embedded in conversions of damages, such as droughts or
ﬂoods, into units of money and utility.
While there has certainly been attention from philosophers and others to the limi-
tations of consequentialist approaches to global environmental problems, the fact that
there are a series of values and assumptions embedded in the maximization criterion
and the utility function of CBAs has not received sufﬁcient attention from philoso-
phers of science. There are some laudable exceptions, such as the work of Broome
(1991, 1992, 1999, 2004) and Sagoff (2004). But the ﬁeld is a complex one in need
of additional theorists for there are multifaceted issues in the ﬁeld of climate science
The MOC is part of a global-scale ocean circulation system also referred to as the “conveyor belt cir-
culation” (Broome 1991). In the North Atlantic, this circulation system consists of warm surface waters
ﬂowing from the tropics to higher latitudes. Due to heat loss to the atmosphere and brine rejection due
to sea ice formation, some water parcels become denser than the underlying water masses and form deep
waters. These deep waters then return southwards to the tropics (and ﬂow further south). The overall ﬂow
problem in the North Atlantic is hence a meridional overturning, hence the name MOC. The MOC may
collapse in response to anthropogenic CO
emissions (Meehl et al. 2007). An MOC collapse is predicted
to pose special risks to natural and human systems (Schneider et al. 2007).
These points are developed in Schienke et al. 2010.
488 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
IAMs and related CBAs that are in need of careful analysis, ones that would not
only beneﬁt from the expertise of philosophers of science, but would provide us with
links to scientiﬁc practice and policy. The following are examples of questions that
philosophers of science can raise and help to address:
1. The IAMs that incorporate socioeconomic factors are large and seldom transpar-
ent models. How might identifying and analyzing the import of the assumptions
embedded in these models transform policy-decisions or the form of IAMs them-
2. Is the RKC model epistemically adequate and ethically satisfactory? Here it would
be especially important to develop robust analyses of the particular definitions of
utility in speciﬁc models, with attention to what is overlooked or excluded by such
3. What value and empirical judgments are included in the discount rate,
describes how the value of utility is deemed to change over time? How would
rendering these judgments transparent impact the models or debates? This is one
of the issues at the heart of the Stern/Nordhaus debate.
4. What are the best (epistemically and ethically) models in climate change policy
for representing how risk, uncertainty, and discounting interact? For example, and
to relate this back to the previous section, is it the case that the current debates over
discounting are “secondary to debates about the open-ended catastrophic reach of
climate disasters” (Weitzman 2009, p. 15).
5. Another significant parameter included in the RKC model that would be a fertile
arena for philosophy of science policy is the elasticity parameter, which deﬁnes
the relationship between utility and consumption. The question of how to set this
parameter is epistemically and ethically relevant because it determines if a unit
of consumption, for example, a dollar, is worth the same or more to those who
start off at lower levels of consumption, that is, whether a dollar of consumption
is worth more to the poor than to the rich.
My list here is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a glimpse into the
value and importance of the analyses that philosophers of science can bring to this
arena of policy-relevant research.
3 Conclusion—climate policy
Although my earlier narrative regarding bioethics included a cautionary tale, the dis-
cipline as it has emerged has been very successful in contributing to policy formation.
The concept of discounting is central to economics whenever judgements are being made about activities
that will have a future impact. Discounting provides a measure for comparing, e.g., present costs in rela-
tionship to future beneﬁts, by converting each future dollar into a common currency of equivalent present
dollars. However, there are significant disagreements by those using CBA for there is a high degree of
uncertainty about the appropriate rate of return on capital in the long run.
The Stern/Nordhaus debate revolves around a set of complex questions concerning how best to set the
discount rate. Stern (2007) represents an approach that sets a comparatively low discount rate, which as
been criticized by Nordhaus (2007).
My thanks to Klaus Keller and Seth Baum for their help in identifying these areas of concern.
Synthese (2010) 177:471–492 489
Here it is important to emphasize that I am not referring to “being political” in the
sense of partisan politics, but rather providing a clear analysis of issues that are both
policy-relevant and policy-ready in addressing issues in ways that can be understood
and effectively used by policy makers.
Here there are a wide range of topics in need of the attention of scholars, from energy
to national security, food production, water security, and climate change. Some of the
best of the policy-relevant research produced by philosophers is coming out of an inter-
esting hybrid of ethics, philosophy of science, philosophy of law, and environmental
philosophy. Fine examples of research reﬂecting this hybridity include the work of
Shrader-Frechette (1993, 2007) and Carl Cranor (1993), both of whose work includes
a focus on policy-relevant research in such areas as nuclear waste and environmental
Climate change science and policy is not only a fertile ground for contributions
from philosophers of science; it is an arena that urgently needs our skills. It is also
an arena which requires work at the intricate intersection between the epistemic, the
ethical, and policy.
As we all look to the negotiators who will meet in Cancun for the 16th Conference of
the Parties of the UNFCCC to hammer out an international agreement that will replace
the Kyoto Protocol as it expires in 2012, I would urge that philosophers of science
recognize the contributions we can make to these decisions. I invite those interested
to join me and the other members of the international program on the Ethical Dimen-
sions of Climate Change who are working with climate scientists and policy makers
to ensure epistemically sound research and policy and to help make sure that the deci-
sions our generation makes are those best suited to an ethically just and ﬂourishing
Amongst the questions that are at the focus of our attention as we prepare f or these
negotiations are the following:
• What are the epistemic and ethical strengths and limitations of policy frameworks
such as contraction and convergence, greenhouse development rights, and REDD
(Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing
• How do we best balance our efforts between mitigation and adaptation? What are
the coupled ethical-epistemic issues we must address in order to best determine
how to equitably share theses burdens?
• Should historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions be factored into pol-
icy mechanisms and if so how?
• Is the “polluter pays” principle embedded into the Kyoto Protocols a fair principle?
• Should all emissions be counted in the same way? That is, should subsistence emis-
sions, such as the methane emissions from subsistence rice farmers, be counted in
the same way as luxury emissions, such as SUVs?
My aim in this essay was to gesture at the importance of and range of contributions
philosophers of science can make to an enriched understanding of the complexity
For information on the international program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change see our web
page at http://rockethics.psu.edu/climate/.
490 Synthese (2010) 177:471–492
of the ethical dimensions of scientiﬁc research, to policy-relevant science, and to
epistemically and ethically adequate science based policy. I urge that we work together
to develop better models for what I am calling embedded philosophy of science and
identify how we might provide future generations of philosophers of science with the
training that they need to be effective members of interdisciplinary research teams
with scientists and engineers, and who can provide much needed resources the cou-
pled epistemic-ethical issues that are part of their research. While my discussion is far
from comprehensive, my hope is that it is at least inspirational.
Acknowledgments I would like to thank Carla Fehr and Katie Plaisance for their very insightful com-
ments on an earlier version of this essay. I am also grateful for comments from the anonymous reviewers for
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