Bioethics Panel Illustrates Scientific Ethics' Complexity

Bioethics Panel Illustrates Scientific Ethics' Complexity

Murray Op-ed in Tech Central Station
March 14, 2005

Recently, I wrote a column here calling on Dr. Rajendra Pachauri to resign as Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change because he was using his position to push a political agenda. Sadly, I now must bring the same argument against a scientist I otherwise very much admire, Dr. Leon Kass, Chairman of The President's Council on Bioethics. His recent decision to draft a political strategy aimed at achieving certain policy goals renders his position as an honest broker on the issue untenable. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from these unfortunate incidents: Science and politics cannot be separated as neatly as scientists and policy makers think.<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 /> <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /> 

According to The Washington Post, Dr. Kass has teamed up with Eric Cohen, editor of the excellent journal of science, politics and philosophy The New Atlantis, to devise "a bold and plausible 'offensive' bioethics agenda [aimed at] tak[ing] advantage of this rare opportunity to enact significant bans on some of the most egregious biotechnological practices."

 

The merits of Dr. Kass's preferred policies are irrelevant here. The problem is that by hitching his star to a particular set of policies he has breached the trust set in him by the President, whose executive order creating the council asked it to "explore specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments; [and] to provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues." At the very least, by sheer virtue of his position, his favored policies are more likely to get a hearing than those of other well-qualified bioethicists who do not have the authority of such an office (a point well made by Roger Pielke Jr of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />University of Colorado here). Such a prospect would seriously undermine in the principle of "procedural justice" -- the right of all sides of a political argument to be heard without fear or favor

 

Yet perhaps we can learn from incidents like this. Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-CA) certainly thinks so. He has proposed a new Bill, HR 839, aimed at "ensuring independent advice and expertise" on federal scientific advisory panels, to wit:

 

"Each agency shall make its best efforts to ensure that --

(A) no individual appointed to serve on a Federal scientific advisory committee has a conflict of interest that is relevant to the functions to be performed, unless such conflict is promptly and publicly disclosed and the agency determines that the conflict is unavoidable;"

 

Rep. Waxman's Bill is fundamentally flawed, because it assumes "objectivity" as a necessary scientific value. As Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, said, "My guess is that should individual scientists ever become 'objective and rational' in the sense of 'impartial and detached,' then we should indeed find the revolutionary progress of science barred by an impenetrable obstacle" (The Rationality of Scientific Revolutions.)

 

This is why the concept of procedural justice is crucial.

 

"Procedural justice" is the formulation of eminent British philosopher Sir Stuart Hampshire, whose later work centered on the idea that conflict over ideas is an inevitable part of human life, but that reasoned debate is always possible. Successful resolution of these conflicts depends on "the overriding necessity that each side in the conflict should be heard putting its case ('audi alteram partem')" (Justice Is Conflict). If Hampshire is correct, then supposed conflicts of interest are not anathema to the policy-making process, but a vital part of it. For a scientific advisory panel to produce useful advice, it must include representatives of all sides in the policy debate, whether they have "conflicts of interest" or not. The only requirement should be that those conflicts are transparent.

 

On the other hand, the chairman of any advisory panel should be scrupulously neutral, otherwise the policy conflict will not be resolved to all parties' satisfaction. As Hampshire says, "The skillful management of conflicts [is] among the highest of human skills." Again, procedural justice demands that once chairmen like Pachauri or Kass identify too closely with a particular side in the conflict, they must relinquish that role to somebody better skilled at the management task.

 

If society is to derive any benefit from scientific advisory panels, lawmakers must recognize that full and frank debate of the views of all sides is necessary, that complete impartiality on the part of participants is neither necessary nor desirable, but also that those charged with resolving the conflict—chairmen or working group leaders—must act within strict parameters of neutrality. Neither the actions of Dr. Kass nor the Bill sponsored by Rep. Waxman are doing anything to improve the quality of scientific advice.