Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, October 22, 2003

New program seeks to add ethics infrastructure to all phases of Bio-X research


Scholars in philosophy, law and bioethics should be included in discussions on research content and practice, experts say


Bio-X will do more than break down barriers that have traditionally separated scientists and engineers. Faculty from fields as diverse as music, psychology and law also have been drawn into the initiative, enabling Bio-X to build on the strengths of the entire campus.

"Stanford is a full-service university," said Associate Professor Barbara Koenig, a medical anthropologist and a senior researcher at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics (SCBE). "It's not just a bunch of scientists working in isolation. Stanford has everything."

To underscore the interdisciplinary appeal of Bio-X, Koenig, Professor Hank Greely, law, and Associate Professor Debra Satz, philosophy, head a Bio-X-sponsored program called "The Ethical Dimensions of Neuroscience Research," which seeks to strengthen the "ethics infrastructure" of neuroscience research across campus.

According to Koenig, scholars in philosophy, law and bioethics should be included not only "downstream," when the products of basic research are translated into clinical practice, but "upstream," as scientists make choices about the content and actual practice of their work. "Our basic goal is to try to create an intellectual community around these issues that's very interdisciplinary," she said. "That's a challenge because people look at things so differently."

Greely, a member of the Bio-X Scientific Leadership Council and chair of SCBE's steering committee, explained that discoveries associated with Bio-X are likely to have real ethical, legal and social implications. "They're not doing research on quasars 50 billion light years away," he said. Greely also is optimistic that Bio-X's interdisciplinary structure will make it more open to nonscientists like himself. "To be an insider in Bio-X you have to be an outsider," he said. "I think it will be a lot easier to work in such an environment."

The three-year program supports a bimonthly "neuroethics" seminar for faculty and graduate students and a journal club where scientific papers are presented. It also brings together experts in fields ranging from psychology and law to medicine to discuss the development of a new curriculum for graduates, postdoctoral scholars and clinical trainees that will be devoted to ethical issues in the neurosciences.

In addition, the initiative has funded four yearlong student research projects exploring issues at the intersection of bioethics and the neurosciences. The objective, Koenig said, is to teach students how to do research with an ethics focus. Those selected this year -- graduate students Matthew Kirschen, Moriah Thomason and Jonathan Loeb, and undergraduate Jennifer Yoon -- were required to have at least two advisers in different fields. Loeb, for example, is conducting a survey of neurobiological researchers to learn more about the role of the scientist as citizen.

"Another goal [of the initiative] is to get scientists interested in the fact that they have an obligation to be good public citizens about the ethical issues that their science raises," Koenig said. "It's important to instill in them ... that you have an obligation as a scientist to take a public role and speak out. We're hoping to model that with some of the faculty."

Koenig admits that interdisciplinary work is difficult but Bio-X makes it easier. "We're trying to break down barriers that are artificial -- they just happen to be the way universities developed," she said. "They shouldn't shape the way science is done -- and bioethics is done -- forever. If things never changed, we would all still be taking Greek."

Meanwhile, psychology Professor Brian Wandell, a member of the Bio-X Scientific Leadership Council, said Bio-X until now has mostly been about "who goes where" in the Clark Center. "The next year will show if it's a housing project or a conceptual project," he said. "This next year will be decisive. I hope it works."