Background: A growing literature has raised—skeptically—the question of whether cutting-edge scientific research can identify and address broader ethical and policy considerations in real time. In genomics, the question is: Can ELSI contribute to genomics in real time, or will it be relegated to its historical role of after-the-fact outsider critique? We address this question against the background of a genomic screening project where we participated as embedded, real-time ELSI researchers and observers, from its initial design through its conclusion.
Methods: As part of the ELSI study design, the project included an ongoing reflexive ethnography in which the authors studied the process of its design and implementation. The authors were true participant observers, serving as members of various task-oriented groups while recording meetings and other events for ongoing qualitative analysis. We also conducted and analyzed interviews of multiple participants at the conclusion of the project.
Results: Our real-time ELSI initiative had a mixed record of successes and challenges. If we define success as ELSI researchers having had an opportunity to participate fully in the project and to make the ELSI perspective heard, then our assessment is largely positive. If, however, we define successes as instances where real-time ELSI contributions changed the direction of the genomic or public health aspects of the GeneScreen project or, after careful deliberation, confirmed the appropriateness of the status quo, then we can identify only a few examples. While we had a seat at the table, we were, for the most part, tolerated guests.
Conclusions: We conclude that there are significant barriers to real-time ELSI influence. The difficulty does not reside in any intended exclusion of an ELSI perspective, but in factors endemic to genomic research, including knowledge disparities, epistemological biases, and the pressures of time and money.