Adventures in Ethics and Science

Against over-specialization.

In the 12 September, 2008 issue of Science, there is a brief article titled “Do We Need ‘Synthetic Bioethics’?” [1]. The authors, Hastings Center ethicists Erik Parens, Josephine Johnston, and Jacob Moses, answer: no.

Parens et al. note the proliferation of subdisciplines of bioethics: gen-ethics (focused on ethical issues around the Human Genome Project), neuro-ethics, nano-ethics, and soon, potentially, synthetic bioethics (to grapple with ethical issues raised by synthetic biology).

Emerging areas of scientific research raise new technical and theoretical questions. To the extent that they also impact non-scientists — whether by introducing new materials and products into our world, or raising questions about safety or privacy or control, or by challenging our understanding of ourselves (in body and mind) — these emerging areas of scientific research also raise ethical questions. However, Parens et al. wonder if the ethical questions raised by different scientific subfields are so new or distinct as to require their own subfields of bioethics:

Asking bioethical questions in the context of emerging science and technology is hugely important for our health, environment, and, ultimately, our democracy. But anyone who engages with those questions must acknowledge the extent to which they are similar from one scientific arena to another. After all, if synthetic biologists are able to create biofactories that make gene products, they are engaging in a form of genetic engineering that, presumably, could be considered in gen-ethics. Insofar as synthetic biologists work at the nanoscale, their work seems to fall within the purview of nano-ethics, and so on. Given the convergence of scientific investigations, it is not logical to separate the associated ethical inquiries.

The authors discuss some of the ways that bioethicists focused different scientific subfields keep encountering similar types of questions (whether about privacy, civil liberties, sharing of information about risks, or just distribution of benefits and harms). A “balkanization of bioethics,” they argue, might result in bioethicists trying to tackle themselves questions for which they would be better off drawing on the work done by other bioethicists focused on different scientific subfields. Reinventing the wheel — many times over — is wasteful of intellectual labor.

Parens et al. close the article by saying:

Bioethics does not need a new subfield to justify support for research on synthetic biology. Instead, we need to get better at appreciating and explaining that digging into familiar questions in new scientific contexts is the smartest way to inch forward.

I appreciate the point Parens et al. are making. But there are some objections that I’d want to see answered before I’d be totally sold on their conclusion.

I should note that I’m offering these potential objections from the standpoint of someone who studies ethics in science but is not a bioethicist. That is to say, those who are bioethicists (and those in ethics who are not bioethicists) are already engaged in some “balkanization”. Usually, when we feel it’s appropriate, we just call it division of intellectual labor.

Objection 1: Subdisciplines can facilitate ongoing conversations among practitioners.
If you’re a bioethicist who is really focused on particular implications of a scientific area like synthetic biology, it can be productive to have a natural place for interactions with other bioethicists (and scientists) with the same focus. Trying to explain the interesting ethical concerns around advance X in a forum mostly populated by bioethicists who deal with different scientific areas could lead to interactions like this:

Synthetic bioethicist: Advance X gives rise to these interesting ethical challenges that scientists and policymakers haven’t had to face before.

Old school bioethicist: Actually, those challenges are just like those raised by [some biomedical issue I wrote about 20 years ago].

Synthetic bioethicist: On the surface, the ethical issues are similar, but here are the important differences.

Old school bioethicist: Those differences are overblown. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Don’t forget to cite the papers where I solve those problems.

Obviously, it’s frequently useful to be up on what researchers in nearby fields are doing, to be able to recognize similar patterns and problems, and to be able to draw on the published literature. But similar problems are not identical, and sometimes the differences are where the action is. Having a professional circle in which you don’t have to waste energy defending your interest in the differences every time you open your mouth could be a good thing.

Objection 2: Bioethics subdisciplines can track important differences in the corresponding scientific subdisciplines.

Scientific disciplines and subdisciplines focus on different questions, systems, and experimental and theoretical approaches. They are also distinct communities, with their own cultures. To the extent that bioethicists are concerned with how scientists in a subdiscipline make knowledge and direct it towards particular uses, having some familiarity with the workings of that subdisciplinary culture might be a good thing. To the extent that bioethicists might want to make recommendations that scientists will take on board, familiarity with the workings of that subdisciplinary culture might be an absolute necessity. And, grokking the workings of a subdisciplinary culture might be a hard enough project that you’d want the help of others. Organizing into a subdiscipline of bioethicists corresponding to a particular scientific subdisciplinary culture could make it easier to find the help you need.

Objection 3: Funding.

Bioethicists, like other scholars, need to secure funding in order to conduct research and be part of an intellectual community. If funders are offering grants to map out particular new areas within bioethics, and if those areas are of interest to a number of researchers, the corresponding subdisciplines of bioethics are likely to emerge. It’s not a sure thing that they will be stable, and it’s quite possible for these researchers to maintain close contact with other areas in bioethics. But if specialization is an effective strategy in furthering one’s career as a bioethicist, it’s going to happen.

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Erik Parens, Josephine Johnston, and Jacob Moses, “Do We Need ‘Synthetic Bioethics’?” Science (12 September 2008) Vol. 321, no. 5895, 1449.