May 01, 2006

Benchside Ethics Superheroes at Stanford

Nature has the best writeup ever on a benchside ethics consultation program, which is in full swing at several of the "big bucks" genome money funded bioethics programs, most notably Stanford:
... the Stanford service aims to go beyond ethical troubleshooting, say co-founders David Magnus and Mildred Cho. "A lot of scientists don't really see ethics as a part of their job," says Cho. By making the usually academic field of bioethics more accessible, Magnus and Cho hope to promote a culture of ethical thinking within the laboratory...

Bench-side consultations are a way of integrating ethical thinking into a scientist's everyday life," says Magnus, director of the Stanford centre. Like most of his colleagues he doesn't think bioethicists should be expected to prevent misconduct. But he believes his bench-side service can foster integrity in trainee scientists and so indirectly prevent research going off the ethical rails...

What would the Stanford ethicists do if they discovered research that was illegal or breached public health and safety? Although they sign confidentiality agreements with Stanford researchers, Magnus and Cho say they have an obligation to report misconduct if they come across it. But what about less serious transgressions? "I don't think bioethicists should be policing research," says Magnus.

To avoid potential criticisms, the Stanford team is financially independent thanks to federal funding. The service is now being offered to all biomedical researchers at Stanford; other institutions, including Case Western Reserve University and Duke University in North Carolina, are setting up similar bench-side consultations. Hyun is not involved in the Case Western service at present, although he has not ruled that out. The hope is that such a service will promote ethical awareness in the lab. It's not a watchdog, but it must avoid looking like a show dog. It might not prevent deliberate misconduct, but it should help researchers who want to do the right thing.

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