Geoscience Education/Geocognition Researchers:

A colleague in Physics Education Research posted this to another listserv. As some of you are aware, NSF DUE has released a Dear Colleague letter related to education research and COVID-19. Dr. Dounas-Frazer’s concerns about the ethics of this research and call follow – I will be sharing with my own research group and wanted the broader community to have access to his analysis.


Dear PER colleagues,

Some of you may be aware that NSF is soliciting proposals related to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are unfamiliar with this solicitation, I have copy/pasted the text after my signature.

The conditions we are living in are unprecedented. As such, it is unlikely that there is significant ethical guidance about how to conduct STEM education research in the present moment, let alone research that frames the pandemic itself as an opportunity.

It is not obvious to me that the DUE solicitation itself is ethical, let alone whether the proposed or funded projects will be ethical  Specifically, I am concerned that the solicitation and its forthcoming awards may violate the basic ethical principles of the Belmont Report: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. If you are responding to the DUE call, I hope you and your collaborators are thinking about how you plan to uphold these principles in your research.

Below, I outline some of the major ethical concerns that I have been thinking about and discussing with others. If you and your collaborators have not yet discussed the ethical considerations of the DUE solicitation, the ideas described below could be a starting place for you and your team.


Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, Ph.D. (he/him/his)
Assistant Professor
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Program
Western Washington University

Office: CF 357
Phone: 360-650-3153

* * *

-- Do people living through the COVID 19 pandemic comprise a vulnerable population?

Informed consent is one of the major applications of respect for persons, and involvement of vulnerable subjects in research is a common site of injustice. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic is such that many people do not know their COVID-19 status, and many people will become ill in the coming weeks and months. Most ill people will recover, many will experience chronic conditions, and some will die. In addition, many people are losing their source of income as a direct result of the pandemic. The Belmont Report identifies "the economically disadvantaged [and] the very sick" as vulnerable populations, and indicates that "they [may be] easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition."

-- Do people living in states with mandatory stay-at-home orders comprise a vulnerable population?

To minimize the number of people who will develop chronic conditions or succumb to COVID-19, several states are issuing mandatory shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders. My intuition is that similar orders will be issued in most or all states in the near future. Arguably, these orders are a form of medical institutionalization, similar to house arrest. The Belmont Report identifies "the institutionalized" as a vulnerable population.

-- Do researchers need to seek consent from research participants who have already given consent?

Some researchers may be planning to compare measures of student learning before and after the unplanned switches to online classes, i.e., before, during, and possibly after the pandemic. I wonder whether students who previously agreed to participate in a study would consent to have their results used in this new and unforeseen capacity. Some of those students who are now living through the COVID-19 pandemic may want to know that their prior participation is being used as a pre-pandemic baseline or something akin to that.

-- Do researchers have an obligation to include people with COVID-19 on their teams?

Illness, including temporary illness or chronic conditions, is a form of disability. My interpretation is that research related to the COVID-19 pandemic inherently involves issues of ableism, i.e., ability-based oppression. One principle of disability justice is summarized by the slogan, "Nothing about us without us is for us." (The slogan was popularized in part by James Charlton, who originally heard it expressed by Michael Masutha and William Rowland.) Although this justice-related ethical principle is not explicitly included in the Belmont report, I wonder whether it applies to research related to the pandemic. If people living with COVID-19 or related chronic conditions are among the intended beneficiaries of the research, is the research for them, and does it need to be conducted with them? If research cannot currently be conducted in partnership with people with COVID-19 (because, e.g., they are hospitalized), is it better to move forward without them, or to wait?

-- What kind of education research, if any, would be kind and charitable at this time?

The Belmont Report emphasizes the importance of securing the well-being of human subjects, and defines 'beneficence' as "acts of kindness or charity that go beyond strict obligation." Many people with COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms are currently unable to receive tests or treatment. I wonder whether it is kind or charitable to use the pandemic as an opportunity to study the impacts of unplanned switches to online classes *while the pandemic is ongoing.* I wonder whether such research can secure the well-being of research subjects who may soon become chronically ill or die, who may lose their income, or who may be legally confined to their homes for medical reasons.

* * *

Subject: NSF Funding Opportunities for Research on the Impact of COVID19 on Undergraduate STEM Education

I’m writing to you because you are the primary investigator on at least one current NSF award that was funded at least partly by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE).  Please feel free to forward this message to colleagues who may be interested.

NSF has encouraged submission of proposals related to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), as described in the Dear Colleague Letter at;!!HXCxUKc!niVBcEHF3ytqigPheuZhpR84X0k4gYGXeXnNS8ei61EVbZRMUPcKBOGCu5VErbU$<;!!HXCxUKc!niVBcEHF3ytqigPheuZhpR84X0k4gYGXeXnNS8ei61EVbZRMUPcKBOGCu5VErbU$> .

DUE is specifically interested in research on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on undergraduate education.  The outbreak has altered undergraduate education in unforeseen ways, including forcing temporary closures and unplanned switches to online classes.  DUE thinks that research about the impacts of such responses on students and educators could provide important new knowledge about STEM learning, virtual learning environments, the impact of stress on learning, and many other important topics.

If you are engaged in such research or would like to do so, we encourage you to consider submitting a proposal to any of our relevant funding programs including the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE): EHR program, the IUSE:HSI program, the S-STEM program, the ATE program, the Noyce Program, and the ECR Core research program.   (See

Alternatively (or in addition), if you have an urgent research need or opportunity, you may consider submitting proposals via the following funding mechanisms:

1.  Submit a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) proposal.
See Chapter II.E.1 of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide

2.  Request supplemental support for your existing award.
See Chapter VI.E.4 of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide

3.  Organize a conference or workshop.
See Chapter II.E.7 of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide

Possible topics of interest for these funding mechanisms include, but are not limited to, research on  the effectiveness of switching from an in-person to a completely online educational format and research on how the outbreak affects student attitudes, interests, and performance in STEM.

Important: You should contact a program officer to explore whether your needs might be appropriate for funding via the RAPID, Supplemental Support, or Conference mechanisms.   A list of DUE staff is available at;!!HXCxUKc!niVBcEHF3ytqigPheuZhpR84X0k4gYGXeXnNS8ei61EVbZRMUPcKBOGCHt-kXUg$<;!!HXCxUKc!niVBcEHF3ytqigPheuZhpR84X0k4gYGXeXnNS8ei61EVbZRMUPcKBOGCHt-kXUg$> .

With best regards,

Robin Wright, PhD

Director, Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR)
National Science Foundation
2415 Eisenhower Boulevard, Room W11138
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Julie Libarkin (she / her)
Professor & Director - Geocognition Research Lab
Michigan State University
288 Farm Lane, 206 Natural Science
East Lansing, MI 48824

Phone: 517-355-8369
Email: [log in to unmask]<mailto:[log in to unmask]>