Friends and Colleagues,
For the last six years I have had the honor and privilege of serving on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission).
Either the President or Congress, for over 40 years, has selected a commission and outlined its charge. President Barack Obama did the same, and in May 2010 he asked us to explore the ethical aspects of synthetic biology. It was the first of many assignments the commission received.
About the Commission. The following statement is used on the Bioethics Commission’s webpage to explain the commission and its work:
“The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) is an advisory panel of the nation’s leaders in medicine, science, ethics, religion, law, and engineering. The Bioethics Commission advises the President on bioethical issues arising from advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology. The Bioethics Commission seeks to identify and promote policies and practices that ensure scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in a socially and ethically responsible manner.”
The current Commission consists of 10 members, each of whom had to be nominated and vetted carefully by the White House. I believe my nomination to the Commission was by Kathleen Sebelius, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Secretary Sebelius also was the former Governor of Kansas, with whom I worked closely in Kansas to open an NCI-designated Cancer Center.
Chair of the commission is Amy Gutman, Ph.D., president of the University of Pennsylvania, is a political scientist and one of the foremost ethicists in the country. Vice Chair is James Wagner, Ph.D., president of Emory University, an award-winning teacher and scientist in engineering. Each member brings their own unique expertise in medical research, science and clinical care of patients, which led to some interesting discussions as we considered each ethical topic and our recommendations surrounding it.
Commission meetings. Since 2010 we’ve had 24 meetings and explored nine topics ranging from The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies to Ethics and Ebola: Public Health Planning and Response. Each meeting lasts one to two days and consists of listening to subject experts, the public, and Q&A from the panel of speakers who provided their expertise and recommendations for our consideration. At the end, we write a detailed monograph on each topic. Here is the complete list of the commission’s studies.
Today, I’m in Washington, D.C. to work on our last project, a “Reflections Project,” where we hear from top bioethicists of the last four Presidential Bioethics Commissions and two international bioethics groups. We want to frame the role of bioethics in medicine and science, and particularly the role of the commission, and how it can help impact the future. You can view it here.
The Commission’s staff: While we meet and deliberate our recommendations, the wonderful full-time staff of the Commission works hard to draft reports for us to review and endorse. They are the ones who get the actual work of the Commission done. At our peak, there were about 20 staff including communicators, research analysts, writers, and most importantly, Lisa M Lee, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Commission, who has led the team since year two.
Next Steps: As the work of the Commission winds down, the team’s priority is educational outreach. The staff are putting their efforts into getting the information compiled by the Commission into the hands of politicians, the public, medical schools, hospitals and research scientists. Some of the Commission’s recommendations require changes to statute to ensure patient privacy and protections, while some require additional research, such as testing vaccines for safety in young adults, then teenagers, before testing vaccines on younger children.
This experience has been truly inspirational for me. I’m not a bioethicist by training, but I’ve always had an interest in it and have taught it to medical students. I’m so grateful for the subject experts I’ve been able to meet with and learn from, and for my commission colleagues, whom I’ve learned from as well. I can’t wait to incorporate this work into our bioethics curriculum.
The Commission has a wealth of fascinating educational materials. You can find the materials here.
Read more in the UNLV School of Medicine newsletter Rounds.
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