Big names in bioethics are falling out over how the burgeoning field should set its own ethical boundaries.
The controversy has been ignited by a report by a task force of ten leading bioethicists which outlines how bioethicists should interact with companies that seek their advice.
The task force was convened by two bioethics societies last year. Its report, in the May/June issue of the Hastings Center Report, suggests ways in which bioethicists can safeguard their independence when doing for-profit consulting. It covers issues such as disclosure, confidentiality contracts and compensation.
But in an accompanying commentary, bioethicists Stuart Youngner of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and Robert Arnold of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania dismiss the guidelines as “a 'how-to' manual for a new guild interested in promoting what it already does”. They also say that task-force members have not disclosed their own corporate ties.
The dispute arises as bioethics is coming of age as a profession in the United States. As the field gains influence in the media and in policy-making, industrial companies have begun to engage bioethicists to assess controversial work — and to convince the public that they are taking ethics seriously.
Bioethicists are being offered board positions, consulting contracts, research grants and even stock options. Some of them worry that, as a result, industry is co-opting the field. Others argue that corporate money poses no threat provided that bioethicists declare it and manage corporate relationships with care.
The Hastings Center Report, the journal of the bioethics centre of that name in Garrison, New York, began asking contributors to declare conflicts of interest last year. But the task force's own declaration merely says that eight of the ten authors have “performed consultations of the type described in this article”.
That's not good enough, say Youngner and Arnold. Their commentary argues that readers need more information to evaluate the panel's conclusions. To make their point, the two dissidents asked the journal to print exhaustive details of their own income from corporate sources — which it declined to do.
In an editorial, the journal says it doesn't think lengthy disclosures will benefit its readers, as “the facts would lose their punch” and “authors would use the space to subtly spin those facts and forestall readers' concerns”.
The co-chairman of the task force, Baruch Brody of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, notes that science journals' disclosure statements never include sums of money. He also doesn't see the need for the task-force members to name companies with which they are associated in this case, because no firm stands to benefit from their published opinions.
“The purpose of disclosure is to put people on notice that there's the potential for bias. We've done that,” says Brody. But he admits that confidentiality agreements stop him revealing some of his corporate relationships. He says he avoids potential conflict by never publicly discussing bioethics issues relating to those companies.
Such agreements worry Arnold because they rely on the bioethicist to assess where a conflict might arise. “I was saddened by the fact that the committee took a very soft position on secrecy agreements,” he says.
Arnold is also worried about problems posed by companies sponsoring academic centres. The Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, directed by task-force member Arthur Caplan, for example, has taken funding from companies such as Celera Genomics of Rockville, Maryland, and Monsanto of St Louis, Missouri.
But Virginia Sharpe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a pressure group based in Washington DC, says that Caplan's is the only centre of 89 she surveyed that posts funding information on its website.
The bioethics societies have yet to act on the task force's findings, which have split their community. “This has been the most divisive issue in the field as long as I've been in it,” says task-force member Jeffrey Kahn of the University of Minnesota.