Monday, July 10, 2006

Bioengineering in Society

This is the short version of a vision I have for the UW bioengineering department's strategic plan. I've posted the longer version in a comment.

Bioengineering is a term that includes many particular topics, but it is always associated with advances in medicine or biotechnology. Since its inception, the field has been synthetic. In the 1960’s, physicians and materials scientists collaborated to generate a solution enabling long-term kidney dialysis. The Teflon Scribner shunt led to Seattle’s prominence as renal failure treatment center and is but one example of ground-breaking interdisciplinary engineering work at the UW. Bioengineers may forget that it also set the stage for a situation in which a “God Committee” made decisions about which patients could receive the expensive dialysis procedure in a resource limited environment. In the end, federal health care policy was changed so that no renal failure patient would be refused treatment. The area of bioengineering that I believe should be tackled in the next 5-25 years is not a specific research program; it is the way that bioengineers think about their position in society.

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 will be at the minimum competent communicators about issues in science, engineering and society.

My proposal is for the bioengineering department to deliberately invest in the dialogue among bioengineers about the social implications of the work they do. 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. It is clear that faculty and students are committed to contributing to society in meaningful ways. The Grand Challenges in Global Health Care grant is an example that bioengineers at the UW are committed to the complex challenge of moving healthcare out of the resource intensive Western hospital environment into the home and beyond to developing countries.

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 can imagine three techniques. The first is a prominent seminar series on campus focused on issues in engineering and society. Speakers must be qualified to discuss the social and political aspects of fields that they work with, not merely offer armchair analyses of public policy. Such a series could rotate between bioengineering related fields of global health nanotechnology, or stem cell science. Another technique – perhaps more effective but less prominent – at increasing knowledge and ideas about science and society is an ongoing discussion group that includes faculty and all levels of trainee. This could incorporate idealism, practicality and a breadth of ideas in a collegial environment that could engage student and teacher alike. The third, and perhaps most difficult implement would be a course focused on issues of engineering and society. Challenges here include finding the teaching resources, adding to an already heavy course load, and the artificiality of classroom discussion on social, ethical and political issues. Perhaps this would be best as a joint effort between departments. 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.

Here are some web resources for UW groups interested in science and society:

International Health Group:
Nanotechnology and Nanoscience Student Association:
Forum on Science Ethics and Policy: