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Paul Wolpe

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Misunderstanding Ethics and the purpose of this talk

It is interesting to read the comments this talk has elicited. People project onto the talk their own fears or beliefs. The talk has one purpose, and I suppose it has achieved that: it is to get people debating and thinking about the ethics of biotechnology. That is why, nowhere in the talk, do I give my own opinion as to correct answers; I want the viewer to ask themselves the questions.
On the other hand, some of the claims in the comments are pretty surprising. I am involved in quite a few biotechnological projects, so the idea that I am anti-technology or a Luddite borders on the absurd. When Craig Venter first decided to create his minimal genome, he hired my Center at Penn to examine the ethical issues involved, and the two articles were published side by side in Science. So is Craig Venter a Luddite because he was concerned about the ethics of biotechnology?
Science and ethics must go hand in hand. When they don't, science has done unconscionable things. All good scientists understand this, which is why top scientists generally support bioethics, and believe in the importance of incorporating ethical reflection into science and science education. The purpose of bioethics is not to stop science, but to make sure that it is both performed ethically (the history of human subject experimentation is scandalous) and that society, and scientists, carefully consider the best use of scientific funds and the direction of scientific inquiry.
As far as what is done in one's private lab, that too must be constrained by ethical standards. Just because a lab is private does not mean we should allow it to manufacture a virulent virus, do cruel experiments on animals, or release an engineered organism into the ecosystem. Science is part of society, and has no special purchase from which to excuse itself from the ethical reflection or standards that the rest of society is subject to.

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  • Mar 29 2011: I think it's rather unfortunate that many people are getting the impression that these experiments are completely unregulated. In academic science in the US, before conducting any human research, the scientist has to propose his detailed method to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a group made up of both scientists and non-scientists. They strongly consider the ethical impact and potential harm of the research before giving any approval. The science has to be proven to be ethical, necessary, and useful.

    For animal research, thanks to animal rights activists, the guidelines are often more strict than they are for human research. Every institution must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The experiments must be original, have a specific purpose (or future benefit to society), and must minimize or eliminate any animal suffering. Moreover, the researcher has to show that their research cannot be done without the use of animal testing.

    There is an obvious necessity in asking questions about ethics in bioengineering. But it's important to point out that many of the examples in this talk are on the periphery of the ethics debate, not the norm. At least in the US, researchers are required to consider the ethical impacts of their experiments. More importantly, scientific research must first be approved by standards largely agreed upon by (the majority of) society.
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        Mar 30 2011: What is it we all think the military is going to do with these engineered insects? Why is it OK to cross these lines so that one country can spy on or bomb another?. Sometimes we have all just been on the slippery slope so long we do not realize that we are sliding ever downward where the military is concerned.

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