The Science of Bioethics

We've just read the article, "Lessons on Ethical Decision Making from the Bioscience Industry" - this is not a joke - which appeared in the May issue of PLoS Medicine and is available on the Internet. The authors are Jocelyn E. Mackie, Andrew D. Taylor, David L. Finegold, Abdallah S. Daar and Peter A. Singer. Four of the five authors are at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics.

The article summarizes "data" collected from more than 100 face-to-face interviews with managers and executives at 13 bioscience companies regarding their approaches to ethical issues. The authors chose the particular companies because the companies "had implemented interesting and varied mechanisms to address ethical decision making from which [the authors] felt the industry could learn." The companies include: Diversa, Merck, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Monsanto. With regard to Merck, the authors note that the "Vioxx incident" - i.e., the revelation that the company suppressed research data that linked its blockbuster painkiller to increased risk of heart attacks - occurred after their study. It's not clear if the authors are implying that Merck execs were 'clean' when they interviewed them or if they are implying that the information on "ethical decision making" provided by Merck should be taken with a grain of salt since Merck's ethical behaviour now appears to be in doubt. The former is more likely.

But the article is most interesting, and perhaps most alarming, because it's clearly designed to look like a scientific article. There is a text box devoted to "Research Methodology," which describes "data collection" and "data analysis" through a method called "axial coding" - and the article concludes with that phrase indispensable to all scientific literature: "Our findings...demonstrate a need for future development and research." The authors end with an explicit reference to the "empirical" nature of their study. In the "Limitations of Our Approach" section, they explain why their approach isn't so limited after all. They say, "the mechanisms described in this article are not opinions but rather a description of mechanisms being used by the companies - and thus, they are less subject to bias. At each company, the descriptions of mechanisms were given by more than one interviewee, and in most cases, we had documents supporting the fact that these mechanisms do occur as described." One document the authors mention specifically is "Monsanto's Pledge Progress Report," which the company publishes and posts on its web site. The article isn't clear on this point, but are we to understand that the supporting documents the bioethicists used to verify the accuracy of the information supplied by the companies are documents produced by the companies themselves?

The very existence of an article entitled "Lessons on Ethical Decision Making from the Bioscience Industry" suggests that it is self-evident that the bioscience industry takes ethics into account when making decisions. Whether or not the industry does, in fact, make decisions that are ethical appears to be of no interest to the authors and, as the academics say, beyond the scope of their study.

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