May 28, 2024


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."