November 7, 2011

Biological futures initiative aims to bring larger ethical issues into non-medical science

Roger Brent has spent a lot of time thinking about biological threats.

“These days a reasonably educated graduate student or even a talented undergraduate could remake the 1918 flu and let it loose,” said Brent, a molecular biologist.  “It just gets easier and easier each year.”

Of course, scientists with malevolent intent are a tiny proportion of all scientists, but its also true that science of today can have important impacts—both good and bad–on humans of the future, even if the intent is entirely good.

Roger Brent

Roger Brent

Thats why Brent sought out and got funding to create the Center for Biological Futures, based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“The way to greater safety and security lies through scientists behaving responsibly and taking as part of their professional vocation to protect and preserve,” he said.

In order to facilitate that aim, Brent saw the need to join forces with the UW to bring together scientists and humanists and to “generate better thinking and scholarship about the impact that increases in biological capability are having and will have on human affairs.”

The result is an initiative, “Biological Futures in a Globalized World,” a partnership between Brents center and the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Leading the UW part of the program is Alison Wylie, a professor of philosophy and anthropology.

Like Brent, Wylie has long been concerned with the impact of science on society. A specialist in the philosophy of science — archaeology specifically —she came to the UW in 2006 hoping to develop a “science, technology and society” studies program here. But with the ensuing budget cuts, the resources for that disappeared. As a preliminary step, Wylie started the Science Studies Network, bringing together faculty in a number of areas who were interested in studying science from different perspectives — historical, cultural, etc.

Now that network is joining forces with Brents center to present a series of colloquia for interested faculty and students. The next program will be on Monday, Dec. 5 at Fred Hutch. The colloquia are intended to “raise awareness of biological futures issues and catalyze a broad network of scholars and scientists committed to addressing them,” according to a written description of the project.

The colloquia arent all thats going on with the initiative, however. Last summer four faculty members were funded as part of a research consortium that met at the Simpson Center and at the Hutch. They worked on research projects related to biological futures while also participating in weekly discussions with postdoctoral fellows at the center, as well as consulting with practicing scientists in fields related to their research. A similar consortium is planned for the summer of 2012.

Alison Wylie

Alison Wylie

A big goal of the center down the road is training. Although there is “an elaborate system of biomedical research ethics aimed at protecting human subjects,” Brent said, the ethics taught to non-medical scientists tends to be narrower.

“Historically what we have are dont commit fraud, dont plagiarize and dont falsify your data. And those are good rules,” he said. “But theres more to the ethical obligations that certain scientists and engineers have than dont commit fraud etc., that are specific to the scientific enterprise. For example, since our work—if we do it well—will disproportionately affect the world people live in in 2050, what are our obligations to that future?”

As a preliminary step, Wylie and a UW-based postdoc  are building an inventory of research ethics/integrity resources that are already in place on campus in the non-medical sciences.  The next step will be to pull together some planning groups/task forces to help design additional courses and workshops that would serve both to address needs that arent being met and provide links between the various components.

“What were hearing so far — were in the process of meeting with associate deans and program directors who oversee this kind of work — is that theres a real need for an inventory of ethics training resources in the non-medical sciences,” Wylie said. “Much of whats available now is compliance-oriented — ethics training done through online commercial training programs. Or its one-off, developed within individual units and dependent on purpose-specific grant funding.”

While the National Institutes of Health have long had have ethics training requirements, the National Science Foundation has only recently implemented them, Wylie said, and its clear that what the UW currently has is not going to be sufficient in the long run.

“The UW gets lots of money in research grants, and research ethics should be a jewel in the crown,” she said. “We should be a national leader and were not.”

The Biological Futures initiative hopes to change that. Initially, the plan is to build robust research ethics offerings into a science studies certificate program for graduate students, Wylie said. And for the long term, she hasnt given up her dream of creating an integrated graduate and undergraduate program in Science, Technology and Society Studies.

“Theres an astonishing wealth of faculty expertise on this campus—ranging from communication to history to philosophy to anthropology—and then also the science faculty who have concerns about ethics issues and who work on science policy,” she said. “Given the funding situation its not obvious how to do that but theres tremendous interest and potential.”

Meanwhile, there are plans to build, in addition to the initiative website, a web portal that “makes accessible in one place the diverse resources of existing subfields in Science, Technology and Society Studies that are relevant to scholars, scientists and the wider publics who are concerned with biological future issues,” according to a written description of the project. The kernel of that site has already been built.

The funding that Brents center received came from the Innovation Fund of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was for a pilot project lasting two years. Brent, who has been advising the national security establishment on biological threats for a number of years, is already preparing to apply for more funding.

“Theres a national security interest in sustainability and stewardship of the biological world” he said. “In about a year I hope well be making this case to the Pentagon.”