On Tuesday evening, over 100 guests gathered to celebrate the release of The Ethics Police?, the new book by Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the M.S. in Bioethics program at Columbia University. Held at the regal Columbia University Club of New York, the book launch convened Bioethics students and alumni as well as other Columbia University affiliates to hear insights from – and received signed copies of books from – the author. The Ethics Police? explores the world of institutional review boards (IRBs), which oversee human subject research, and to what extent these IRBs both enhance and impede the research process.
Klitzman began the evening by offering an overview of the ethical issues that lie at the heart of the American healthcare system. “Increasingly, the pharmaceutical industry is sponsoring lots and lots of research, but there are drug company scandals that occur,” he said. “There are major epidemics – Ebola, for instance – that create questions about how we should best ethically address these challenges. Social media companies are starting to do all kinds of research on us, unbeknownst to us, and there are lots of important ethical questions about how much knowledge people have about us.”
He then went on to describe the legacy of human research oversight. ”After all the horrific Nazi experiments, the Nuremberg tribunals, for the first time, came up with a small code of how we should regulate scientists’ experiments on people,” he said. “Those regulations, of course, were violated even by the U.S. government with the Tuskegee syphilis study. As a result, the U.S. government set up research ethics committees.”
Klitzman explored the challenge of attempting to regulate such research. “We all are increasingly facing major questions about what research is too risky [and] who should make the decisions.” He said that, in an era of rapidly changing technology, research and informed consent has become more nebulous than ever. “[For technological services,] we have informed consent forms that are 45 pages long...Every day, we scroll down and click ‘I accept’” – even when we don’t understand the terms to which we are agreeing.
These and other ethical issues in science and technology are becoming increasingly urgent, he said, citing issues including global warming, stem cell research, and the sometimes venal interests of drug companies.
“How do we strike a balance?” he said. “We don't want to block what scientists want to do, but we want to make sure it's also morally done.”
After his brief remarks, Klitzman took a few questions from the audience and then stepped down from the podium to sign copies of The Ethics Police?. A gaggle of Bioethics students and alumni gathered around him, posing for photos with the book and with their esteemed program director.