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Bioethics Commission Wraps up Meeting in Atlanta

In a roundtable discussion to conclude its Atlanta meeting, members of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) and the day’s invited speakers delved deeper into how to respond to President Obama’s charge to review the ethical issues associated with the conduct of neuroscience research and implications of its findings.

Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Bioethics Commission, kicked off the discussion by asking for “input on what you think is the single most important issue we need to deal with, whether it be a finding or recommendation in our report.” The following are highlights from the discussion that ensued:

“One of the most important things is consent, given all of the people with a vested interest in getting on with the work and the temptation to be perfunctory about consent and voluntariness. It has to be rigorous and maybe it should be done by third parties. The other issue is the notion of harm (in neuroscience research). It should not be simply physiological harm. We should also think seriously about the potential for psychic harm.” — Robert McGinn, Ph.D., Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford University.

“Most scientists see consideration of ethical issues in some formal sense as an impediment to their work. If you could find a way of turning that around where ethics can support their work, that is really an important thing to do. The incentives right now are misaligned.” — Herbert S. Lin, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board at the National Research Council of the National Academies.

“If people who are going to be talking to the press who are doing these neuroscience studies and thinking about exaggerating their findings, if they are exposed to hard data indicating that this news will have a bad effect (on the field), that may just make them think a little bit harder about it.”  — Alfred R. Mele, Ph.D., the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.

“Speaking as an experimental psychologist and a neuroscientist…I think that we are too ready to trust our gut reaction–and most of the time our gut reaction is good. But when it comes to bioethical issues, which really force us to confront things that our brains were not designed by biology, culture or personal experience to handle, we really have to be willing to put our gut reactions aside and think in a more reflective way about the consequences of different policy choices.” — Joshua D. Greene, Ph.D., the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

“Immediate incentives may be to avoid ethical issues and just get on with narrow science. But one major ethical lapse, especially, but not only, in an emerging science, and it can derail progress for a long time. So being proactive and integrative in ethics makes practical, not just ethical sense, if you are committed as we are as a society to moving scientific progress forward.”  — Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Bioethics Commission.



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