Sunday, November 06, 2005

Doctor Free-Ride's Film Corner

A member of the Adventures in Ethics and Science Field Team brought me a DVD to review, "Ethics in Biomedical Research". This is a DVD produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. According to the HHMI website, the online catalogue offers "a variety of award-winning publications, videos and other materials—all free." That means this DVD is free for the asking, too.

As the title suggests, the focus of the DVD is the ethical issues around biomedical research. There are four parts: Overview (28 minutes), Animal subjects (19 minutes), Genetic alteration (17 minutes) and Scientific integrity (15 minutes). I was a bit surprised that human subjects didn't get their own dedicated section, but they are discussed in the Overview and the Genetic alteration parts.

The overarching message of the DVD is that ethical issues come up especially where scientists doing biomedical research and the public have overlapping interests (what can be cured, what kind of research is necessary to develop the cure, what will it cost, etc.). However, attention is also paid to ethical questions that come up within scientific communities, quite apart from the public's interests and concerns. The filmakers make it clear that ethical issues are complicated, requiring serious efforts to balance risks and benefits (including future outcomes which are uncertain). But, the DVD encourages scientists to face the ethical questions rather than setting them aside for someone else to handle. Indeed, the message is that taking concerns from different quarters seriously, and discussing them ahead of time (rather than after something bad has happened) ought to be part of the everyday activity of doing science.

The DVD has the kind of lovely footage you'd expect of laboratory apparatus, imaging of microbiological systems, and well-maintained laboratory animals. (I swear, they even made the fruit-flies cute.) There is also the standard footage of principal investigators sitting in their office chairs holding forth about the responsible conduct of research, members of Congress (and the President) speaking about stem-cell research, recipients of treatments that resulted from biomedical advances, protestors of various sorts, and a few professional ethicists. More surprising: we also get to hear the opinions of scientists who are not principal investigators -- actual students and lab technicians. And, there are at least two separate research groups having laboratory meetings devoted to discussing ethical issues in scientific research. (The coolness of watching such a group meeting is undercut a bit by the shaky-cam.)

As far as content goes, there are some important historical mileposts (the Nazi "medical" experiments and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the 1975 Asilomar meeting to evaluate the risks of recombinant DNA research). There is also mention of institutional, federal, and international standards that apply to particular kinds of biomedical research (especially research with animal and human subjects). The DVD does include a brief discussion of the three guiding ethical principles in the Belmont Report, and while it can't, for obvious reasons, present all the salient information from institutional guidelines and policy manuals, mentioning that such guideline and manuals exist conveys useful information to the scientist and the scientist-in-training.

But, as the introduction to the DVD makes clear, the sections of the DVD "pose questions but few answers." And in this regard, the DVD is extremely impressive. The interviewees present a wide range of opinions about various ethical issues, from germline alteration to authorship, from financial conflicts of interest to the pressures inherent in the competitive world of cutting-edge research. All of the views in the DVD are presented as worth taking seriously, and the film makers seem to have made a real effort to find some that might challenge more comfortable assumptions within the world of science. (For example, one of the interviewees in the Animal subjects section is Tom Regan. The aim of the DVD is clearly not to cram "all the answers" into 79 minutes of footage, but rather to raise questions and to open discussions -- not only between scientists and non-scientists, but also among scientists. The introduction claims that the DVD content is "presented to stimulate more in-depth discussion, such as in a research group meeting or a classroom setting."

Would I use this DVD in a classroom setting? While it doesn't add any content to my course, it might be useful to my students to see scientists talking seriously about scientific issues. Too, seeing the diversity of views the scientists express in the DVD, and their apparent willingness to work with others to figure out the most responsible course of action in different situations would probably be good for the handful of students I have who start out inclined to reject the whole enterprise of ethics because there are "no right answers" and it's all "just made up". But, I could see this DVD coming in handy in a course designed to prepare students to conduct independent laboratory research, especially in the biomedical sciences. (The Scientific integrity section would work well for students or scientific trainees in pretty much any scientific field.)

A notable absence in this DVD is any explicit role for philosophical tools like ethical theories. Possibly the filmmakers thought ethical theories would be of no use to scientists in the trenches ... but then, I have to ask, how should we reconcile this with the tendency to push off students' ethical training onto philosophy departments? Indeed, I have this nagging worry that DVDs like this (and, I really think this is an excellent DVD) will be substituted for discussions in classroom settings or in research group meetings. "Why yes, we take research ethics seriously. See? We have the DVD!"

Lest you think I'm being overly pessimistic, the member of the Adventures in Ethics and Science Field Team found this DVD tucked away on a bookshelf in a research laboratory. Apparently, it had been provided to the research group by the funding agency. It was still in the shrink wrap.

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At 6:03 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

Man, you just can't learn anything by osmosis these days.

At 2:38 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I dunno ... if you're a single-celled critter, you can probably learn something about your environment through osmosis.

People, on the other hand, have to actually make an effort to find out some of these things about the outseide world!


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