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Ethics for Scientists: Two Dilemmas in Science Policy and Risk Communication

Dr. Thompson stands at the front of a room, describing his slide about approaches to risk assessment

MSU SciComm held its third of six science policy lunches today. Dr. Paul Thompson, the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food, and Community Ethics led today’s session. His talk was titled “Two Dilemmas in Science Policy and Risk Communication” so let’s discuss those dilemmas and what that means for us as scientists.

If you are a regular milk drinker, you may have noticed text on the milk jug saying “according to the FDA, no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST treated and non-rBST treated cows.” In case you’re like me and don’t know what rBST is, rBST is a man-made bovine growth hormone designed to help cows produce more milk. However, the use of rBST has been associated with mastitis, possibly fatal disease in cows. The question is then how as scientists do we determine this risk and whether it is worth it? In Dr. Thompson’s talk, he discussed both the Canadian and European approach and the United States’ approach. In the E.U. and Canada, researchers compared the prevalence of mastitis infections in cows that were treated with rBST and cows that were not. Since the cows treated with rBST were more likely to suffer from a mastitis infection, the researchers concluded that rBST is a risk factor for mastitis infection.

Researchers in the United States took a different approach. Instead of assuming a direct link, what if another factor was the cause of the increased prevalence of mastitis infections. Sure enough, the researchers found that cows treated with rBST had the same rate of infection as high producing dairy cows not treated with rBST. Hence, maybe it wasn’t the rBST that caused the infection but instead, it was the management of the high producing cows that played a key role.

The two groups of researchers reached two contradictory opinions, so how do we decide who is “right?” Well, this is where the ethics come in. In the first case, the associated value is limiting the number of sick cows. That is, if we want fewer sick cows, we shouldn’t use rBST. In the second case, the associated value is fairness. If high producing cows suffer from mastitis infections at the same rate as rBST treated cows and we don’t regulate high producing cows, then we shouldn’t regulate rBST cows. In this sense, there isn’t a “correct” answer but rather, we are left to decide which outcomes best aligns with our goals and values.

If that dilemma wasn’t clear, Dr. Thompson offered another example: gene editing. When researchers edit genes, there is a risk of “off-target” effects were the DNA ends up changed at points other than where the researcher made the modifications. Given that unintended gene edits could result in mutation or even death, researchers have to consider what is an acceptable risk and when the risk is too much, a stopping rule. Many agricultural scientists and farmers regularly try to change the genetic makeup of crops by only breeding plants with desirable traits or by genetically engineering the plants. Since plants that don’t develop as intended can be discarded and plants that do develop as intended can be further studied and tested, there isn’t a large risk associated with gene editing in plants. However, for gene editing in animals or humans, we can’t just discard individuals who develop an unintended side effect as a result of gene editing. What this means is that due to our ethics, we’ve decided on different stopping rules for the gene editing based on the situation: some risk for gene editing in plants is allowable but there should be almost no risk for gene editing with humans.

While Dr. Thompson’s talk ended there, you may still have some questions about what is considered ethical. To try to address that question, we can turn to some of Dr. Thompson’s work with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In one of their publications, Dr. Thompson and others lay out a framework for thinking about the ethics of a situation. First, one needs to consider the constraints in play. These can be technological (what is physically possible), the current laws and policies, and the customary norms that while not formally described in law and policies, often limit the possible choice of action. Given these constraints, one make a choice and perform some action (what Dr. Thompson calls conduct).

Unsurprisingly, these actions will have consequences and we can see whether our choice was ethical based on how it aligns along three dimensions. First, we should consider the balance of benefits and costs based on the decision and whether we have achieved the best possible balance between the two. Next, we should see if the decision aligns with an ideal set of constraints. That is, is the action we took aligned with our professional duties and does it respect the rights of others? Finally, we need to consider whether the action is aligned with patterns of conduct that are considered ethical or virtuous. While these guidelines may not be perfect, they do offer a guide for considering the ethics of a decision or policy.

The next MSU SciComm policy lunch will be on October 17th at 12pm in room 3540 of the Engineering building and will focus on advocating for science. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP on our events page.

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