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Time for bioethics and business to start talking

Commerce and idealism need not be mutually exclusive.

Sir

The cultural rift between bioethicists and biotechnologists has resulted in a situation where each sees the other as single-minded. It is all too easy for bioethicists to assume that businesses are entirely driven by the profit motive, with science merely a slave to this machine. For their part, many corporations deliberately exclude themselves from debating ethics, claiming that their expertise is grounded in the reality of (say) healthcare needs or food production, and dismissing bioethicists as caught up in moral abstractions.

Both groups need to realize the imperative for interaction, particularly if they are truly dedicated to social responsibility. Perhaps the best way to achieve this is to explain how each field can better serve its respective goals by building a constructive rapport. Regrettably, there are only a few on each side of the fence who have come to this realization. Each group must overcome its misgivings, embrace common goals, and try to appeal to the sensibilities of the other.

Put simply, bioethicists and business people need to realize how valuable they can be to each other while honouring their own professions.

Industry representatives are well aware that to meet their goals of stakeholder satisfaction, sustainability, profit and continuing research, they have to understand the intricacies of the life-science landscape. This requires understanding patient interests, legal and regulatory trends, market segmentation and international receptiveness to products. In the most general sense, bioethics offers a context for technology — socially, economically and politically — which is critical given the complexities of the biotechnological enterprise.

If bioethics offers industry a context, how can industry reciprocate? The answer is that it offers relevance to bioethics. Bioethics, amongst other things, is concerned with the just development and distribution of medical and other life-science technologies. The discipline has become concerned with setting policies for scientific grant funding, academic research, and private and public hospitals. But when asked to address the bioscience industry, the question becomes eclipsed by debates over the ethical propriety of working with private firms rather than how to engage them. For instance, helping corporations to understand the ethical context of their research is seemingly less important than holding endless discussions over conflicts of interest.

I think it is important for bioethicists to understand the part of the object of its study that is substantially influenced by commercial factors. Failure to engage industry will eventually lead the discipline towards irrelevance, as it constructs artificial boundaries based on fashions that neglect the important and pervasive role of commerce.

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Dhanda, R. Time for bioethics and business to start talking. Nature 421, 573 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/421573a

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