May 28, 2024

The road ahead for Obama’s bioethics

More consultation is the future

Now that the President’s Council for Bioethics has passed on to the bureaucrats’ burying ground, what will replace it?

The PCB had several predecessors. Beginning in 1974, these committees and commissions covered its turf: the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research; the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research; the Ethics Advisory Board; the Human Embryo Research Panel; the Biomedical Ethical Advisory Committee; and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission; the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments; and the NIH-DOE Joint Working Group on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Human Genome Research.

None of them engaged with the public in the same way as the PCB. Like all expert commissions, they produced reports for other experts on narrowly focused issues. The PCB, with its more flexible brief, was free to examine broader issues and it published the results in several brilliant white papers.

President Obama wants a body which will be more policy-driven, but the feeling at Center for American Progress, the Democrat think-tank with strong links to the White House, is that a new council or commission will have a populist feel – part of the new administration’s experiment in open, transparent government.

Back in March Sujatha Jesudason, of Generations Ahead, a non-profit dealing with genetic technologies, suggested on the Center’s Science Progress blog that the government should consult widely using internet forums and public gatherings. She argued that transparent public discussion would guarantee the pursuit of "American democratic ideals in scientific practice".

So, this is almost certainly the way ahead — no more seminars; lots more Facebook. It all depends on who synthesizes the findings…