October 1, 2022

STANFORD TRIALS “DIAL AN ETHICIST” SERVICE FOR SCIENTISTS

The growing awareness of bioethics has given rise to institutional review boards which oversee and regulate federally funded research in the US. But often scientists need on-the-spot ethical advice in the course of a project. To provide this, Stanford University bioethicists have devised a bench-side consultation service. According to David Magnus, they hope to integrate ethical thinking into a scientist’s everyday life — something that often seems to be missing. "A lot of scientists don’t really see ethics as a part of their job," says his colleague Mildred Cho. Over the past six months, the service has helped seven different Stanford research groups.

Giving this kind of non-binding, voluntary advice can be hazardous, as Insoo Hyun, of Case Western Reserve University discovered too late. He worked with disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk to refine informed consent procedures for his experiments — and later discovered that Hwang had blatantly ignored them. He was forced to withdraw a paper describing what he had done in the American Journal of Bioethics. "Being an ethical consultant doesn’t put you in a position to prevent misconduct," he says.

Critics of the "dial-an-ethicist" approach complain that bioethicists are often too close to scientists. They merely provide an ethical gloss for projects, contends Vera Sharav of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. And a Nature editorial recalled the words of political scientist Langdon Winner to a Congressional science committee in 2003: "The professional field of bioethics has a great deal to say about many fascinating things, but people in this profession rarely say ‘no’… Indeed, there is a tendency for career-conscious social scientists and humanists to become a little too cosy with researchers in science and engineering, telling them exactly what they want to hear."