Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bioengineering ELSI

This report is a summary of one I presented to the committee tasked with identifying the future of bioengineering and by extension the UW BioE department. It has been revised for consideration by the Bioengineering Department's chair search committee. My opinions are based in large part on my experiences leading a group on campus called the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy.

I think it is important for the bioengineering department – and by extension the chair – to seek innovative ways to bridge science and engineering with medicine, ethics and social impact.
From my perspective, the extent that this is even considered as an important task by the bioengineering department is small. In the current environment of ultra-competitive funding (Science, Vol 316, 20 April 2007, p. 356-361), increased occurrences of scientific misconduct (Nature, Vol 435, 9 June 2005, p.737-8), and ever-prevalent social concerns about science, I believe it important for the chair to have ideas about how to prepare students for the complexities of biomedical research and enable faculty to engage each other in meaningful conversations.

Several research strengths at the UW exist in the midst of important public discussions about science and society. Three of these are global health, stem cell research, and nanotechnology. Not only are there prominent researchers in each of these fields within or affiliated with the bioengineering department, but there are centers here focused on each of these topics. As the bridge between basic biomedical research and practical implementation, bioengineers are uniquely positioned to think critically about the needs and expenses of the technology they are building. I believe that the best bioengineers will be able to integrate needs and opinions from society into the healthcare setting. They should be, at the minimum, competent communicators about issues in science, engineering and society.

I believe strongly that a deliberate effort to incorporate issues of social responsibility and public policy into science and technology would provide the foundations to develop individuals that will lead their fields in academia, the corporate sector and the public sphere. How would this be accomplished? I have some ideas, but there are several more out there. Candidates for chair should provide innovative insights into how meaningful conversations about ethical, legal and social implications of research could be facilitated in the UW Bioengineering department. It will not be easy to incorporate concepts often relegated to liberal arts departments into a technical education, but creativity and dedication could result in significant gain. Bioengineers familiar with the global, social and political context of their work will be better prepared to tackle the current challenges in health care and lead us through the next century.

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