Friday, March 10, 2006

The Academy's Obligation to Embrace Bioethics

We are now in the wake of the recent Brown Bioethics Society's lecture by Sheldon Krimsky, where members of the Brown community confronted the sometimes dark, nonobjective nature of contemporary scientific practice as it exists in our academies. The problems introduced by the lecture welcome a storm of questions, the most significant of which may be, “Where do we go from here?” Members of the bioethics community at Brown have been grappling with this question for some time. Here, I provide my own take on scientific reform by briefly examining science’s sister field – medicine. (My argument here is written in anticipation of a forthcoming article that will appear in the Triple Helix's e-journal).

The 20th century brought with it a rapid modernization of the medical discipline. As physicians became more powerful and medicine became more of a presence in society, institutions of medical education embraced medical ethics curricula. This move came as society expressed its interest in training doctors who were not just smart, but good. Good, here, has a clear normative connotation. Nowadays, we have serious reason to question the legitimacy of any medical education program that omits medical ethics from its curriculum. We ought to question the values of such an institution.

However, it is important to note that the 20th century also brought with it a rapid modernization of scientific inquiry. This modernization has increased the presence of scientists in our society, and has (arguably) granted more power to scientists. As science became more advanced, it became less intuitively clear to the public and therefore had an increased chance of operating in isolation of the wants and needs of society. In this way, it gained power that it would not otherwise have had. (Inadequate science education may also be to blame for this inaccessibility). This modernization also inundated society with scientific advances and innovations, including scientific advances in medicine. In any situation where one institution has the ability to harm or benefit members of the public who themselves are not privy to the knowledge of that institution, we ought to ask ourselves, "How should members of this institution operate? What should they be permitted to do? What should they not be permitted to do?"

Just as the 20th century saw medical ethics' establishment as a discipline concerned with addressing these questions as they relate to medicine, bioethics has emerged to answer the same questions for the scientific community. However, even as society puzzles an increasingly more powerful, isolated scientific community, our research institutions and academies have not fully embraced the need for bioethics in their curricula. Although medical ethics is perceived as being necessary for physicians’ training, we do not actively promote a similar requirement for researchers. These two sister fields are thus held to very different standards of practice.

The idea that a research institution that trains thousands of undergraduate and graduate scientists, preparing them for professional research, lacks a program in bioethics ought to worry the public. If academies lack bioethics programs, then how can we be sure that the next generation of researchers is being taught “good science”? Are we to blindly trust the members of the scientific community? A growing body of evidence, including examples cited by Sheldon Krimsky, suggest that this sort of blind trust in academic science may not be safe.

The move to ensure that physicians have ethical training was an important one. We should now expand it to include all individuals who will conduct scientific research. Those scientific research institutions that have yet to establish undergraduate and graduate programs in bioethics ought to be compelled to do so by established advisory panels, public organizations, and representatives of the public (including governmental officials). The very small list of schools moving to dissolve their bioethics programs ought to be chastised for their disregard for public needs. Scientific research academies that neglect ethical inquiry as a component of scientific training ought to be granted the same prestige as are medical schools that neglect the ethical training of their physicians. Institutions of this type embrace an “old curriculum” befitting the days when medical paternalism was the unquestioned law of the land. Now is the time for out with the old and in with the new.

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