Bioethics and the Research University
Critical thinking is key
to understanding and decision-making
The groundbreaking for the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies has propelled the Institute into the forefront of this transformative 21st century field of research. From functional tissue engineering to metabolic engineering, Rensselaer researchers are embarking on a new frontier in science that holds much hope for human progress.
An example of our exciting research plans is a partnership with the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health. This enterprise will advance discovery in biotechnology and bring renown to Rensselaer and the Capital Region for leadership in high-technology research and industry. Scientist Charles Chip Lawrence 67, who holds joint appointments as professor of computer science at Rensselaer and chief of the Biometrics Lab at the Wadsworth Center, is a member the Institutes constellation in bioinformatics, which links biology with information technology.
The growing and evolving field of biotechnology research has put the topic of bioethics in the spotlight. Much of the attention recently has been focused on the ethics of human cloning. Indeed, a Rensselaer alumnus has been at the center of this debate. With the claim last year that his company had conducted a successful experiment in human cloning, Michael West 76, president and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, found himself the focus of controversy over the ethics and the validity of his research. It is important, however, in cases such as this to step back from the media firestorm to carefully and thoughtfully consider the ethical issues as we delve deeper into the promise of biotechnology.
The 20th century was a watershed time in the development of the field of bioethics. The landmark Nuremberg Code for research developed after World War II set high standards for dealing with the growing use of human subjects. Since then, the ever-changing landscape of biotechnology research gene therapy, the human genome project, experimental drug trials, etc. raises ethical considerations for universities, governments, and businesses.
Contemporary bioethics is a complex field with scientific, political, financial, and religious dimensions. It also can be a polarizing topic. Although President George W. Bushs 18-member bioethics panel this summer recommended a four-year moratorium on cloning human embryos for medical research, the panel split on whether scientists should be allowed to use cloning to research new treatments for disease. Meanwhile, just more than half of those Americans surveyed in a recent poll say they approve of cloning when used to find disease treatments.(1) This is but one example of how both popular and expert opinions can be deeply divided.
Consequently, those of us who have devoted our careers to scientific and technological progress have a special responsibility to advance the bioethics debate in an informed and measured manner. Because biotechnology deals with the very elements of human life, it is a topic that can be reduced to simplistic terms or overblown into sensational images out of a B-grade horror film. It is important to find the middle ground where science and reason can balance and perhaps help dispel the natural human fear of the unknown.
Therefore, we have the opportunity and the duty as a research university to shape public understanding, to frame discussions of the issues accurately, to ask the right questions, to clarify the science, to responsibly represent the facts, and to uncover myths and misconceptions about biotechnology research. As with any research endeavor, critical thinking is key to our understanding and to our decision-making. We also must encourage a lively and educational public debate on bioethics so that citizens can make well-informed decisions.
Certainly we must give our students the tools to grapple with the inevitable ethical dilemmas posed by scientific advances.
In a democratic society, public understanding is key to popular and government support for groundbreaking biotechnology initiatives. Rensselaer ethicist and Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies Michael Fortun suggests using the metaphor of the open house to describe the optimal conditions for public debate on bioethics. He believes that we should open the door to the discussion to as many parties as possible biologists, political leaders, biotech business executives, concerned citizens, farmers, etc. to encourage a frank and knowledgeable dialogue.
In the August issue of Wired magazine, Fortun says that Real ethics is about remaining open to the Other, which also means remaining open to the future, which means remaining open to what you dont know.
Fortuns definition illustrates well what lies at the heart of scientific research: the pursuit of what we dont know, the new knowledge that has the capacity to change the world. Our success depends on our ability to see beyond our research to appreciate how what we discover fits into our vision of a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future.
1. Public Agenda. Divided Bioethics Panel Backs Cloning Moratorium. July 11, 2002.