By now, everyone knows the claims used to argue that bioethicists
should accept consulting opportunities and research funding
from pharmaceutical and biotech corporations. Proponents of
corporate-sponsored bioethics commonly develop variations on
First, we live in a capitalist economy and bioethicists have
the right to seek remuneration for their services. Bioethicists
should not be expected to provide pro bono work for corporations;
instead, bioethicists ought to be able to offer their professional
services as consultants to industry. Bioethicists can promote
ethical corporate practices and protect corporate interests
by identifying moral concerns related to such topics as embryonic
stem cell research and genetically modified crops. For many
biotech and pharmaceutical corporations, the use of bioethicists
fits within a larger program of risk analysis and risk management1.
Second, bioethicists need to work with different 'stakeholders,'
leave their 'ivory towers' and address the moral ambiguities
of the marketplace. To understand the complex ethical, legal
and social issues facing company executives, corporate compliance
officers and industry scientists, ethicists need to visit the
boardroom2. Advanced Cell Technology (Worcester, MA, USA), Ardais
(Lexington, MA, USA) and several other corporations have established
bioethics advisory boards. Numerous bioethicists act as corporate
consultants to biotech companies. In this capacity, they accept
consulting fees, honoraria, research grants and other corporate
perks. The establishment of ties between corporations and bioethicists
is not limited to a few entrepreneurial bioethicists. The University
of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics (Philadelphia), the Stanford
Center for Biomedical Ethics, the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics
Institute at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD), The Hastings
Center (Garison, NY), the Center for Practical Bioethics, the
University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics and the Centre
de Recherche en Droit Public at the University of Montreal all
accept funding from corporate sponsors3.
Third, in an era when competition for government funding of
academic research is growing increasingly intense, corporate
funding provides a resource for building bioethics programs
and educational initiatives. Here, the argument is that bioethicists
and bioethics centers need corporate funding to survive. Decreases
in government funding of academic research, or increased competition
for available funds, serves as the basis for an argument on
behalf of the necessity of accepting corporate support.
The language of debate and argumentation suggests that bioethicists
are carefully weighing the consequences of cultivating close
ties to industry. However, many bioethicists seem to have overcome
their initial reservations and now welcome a close relationship
with the corporate sector. Potential conflicts of interest are
to be addressed through disclosure policies and institutional
firewalls4. Disclosure guidelines will ostensibly address all
concerns about hidden agendas or partisan interests.
However, should bioethicists so eagerly seek corporate funding?
Are there any reasons why we might want to discourage stronger
ties between bioethicists and the biotech and pharmaceutical
Carl Elliott is perhaps the most outspoken critic of the entrepreneurial
turn in bioethics5. He argues that the bioethics watchdog is
quickly becoming the corporate show dog6. Elliott raises legitimate
concerns about the dangers of bioethics being 'captured' by
corporate interests. Close ties between bioethicists and industry
have several deeply problematic consequences.
First, they help whitewash the reputation of corporations by
letting companies promote ethics advisory bodies and ethics
programs in advertising and promotional brochures. Ethics consulting
promotes the façade of responsible corporate policies
while often doing little to improve corporate practices. Though
bioethicists like to tout their contribution to improving corporate
social responsibility, there is little evidence that bioethics
consultants and bioethics advisory boards play a meaningful
role in improving corporate practices.
Second, accepting corporate funds places bioethicists in the
pockets of the very industries they claim to critique. The consequence,
Elliott suggests, is that criticism is muted or tempered by
the recognition that bioethicists depend on the corporations
they propose to advise or regulate. In effect, corporations
respond to social criticism by buying their critics. The phenomenon,
sometimes described as 'regulatory capture,' suggests a process
whereby outspoken social critics and regulators are harnessed
by the industries they attempt to constrain. Bioethicists receive
financial perks and institutional support in return for tempering
their critiques, and corporations placate the parties that might
otherwise seek to constrain or block their economic objectives.
Third, taking corporate funds generates intractable conflicts
of interest. Bioethicists risk appearing mere toadies of the
corporations they propose to advise and regulate. The increasingly
prevalent practice of accepting funding from the corporate sector
generates an outcome whereby bioethicists come to be perceived
as corporate shills who will use their 'arms-length' relationship
to promote corporate objectives. Many citizens have no idea
that the bioethicists seemingly offering 'independent' analysis
in The New York Times are receiving research funds and salary
support from the very industry about whom they purport to provide
Stockholders were astonished to discover that stock analysts
often held financial stakes in the stocks they promoted. Similarly,
citizens might well be amazed to learn that bioethicists providing
social commentary on the biotech and pharmaceutical industry
sometimes benefit from close financial ties to the very corporations
whose research they publicly debate.
Bioethicists increasingly seem to be more interested in discussing
how to forge links with corporations than in confronting whether
bioethicists should have such close ties to industry. And yet,
the current move toward corporate consulting and obtaining research
contracts represents a major transformation in the ethos of
bioethics. Born in the social turbulence of the late 1960s and
early 1970s, bioethics has its roots in social critique. Some
of the earliest work in bioethics addressed the need to reform
psychiatric hospitals and other medical facilities, the patient-physician
relationship and the conduct of biomedical research. Early bioethicists
prided themselves on maintaining a critical distance from commercial
forces and the powerful economic interests of the 'medical-industrial
complex.' Now, 30 years later, the independence and integrity
of bioethics is in question, and bioethicists risk being perceived
as corporate pawns whose social commentary is compromised by
their corporate ties7. The constant shape shifting among the
roles of regulator, advisor, educator, consultant, watchdog
and employee raises difficult questions about the very identity
and purpose of bioethics. If bioethicists are incapable of maintaining
financial and intellectual independence from the drug industry,
what purpose will their social commentary serve?
Regrettably, few bioethicists are giving much thought to the
transformation of their field. Elliott's depiction of bioethics
as lapdog is perhaps too generous a characterization. More porcine
imagery is needed to convey the rush toward corporate consultation,
research contracts and advisory gigs.
1. Arakelian, C. Drug Discovery Today 8, 386–388 (2003).
2. Magnus, D. Drug Discovery Today 7, 385–387 (2002).
3. Elliott, C. Hastings Center Report 31, 9–12 (2001).
4. Brody, B. et al. Hastings Center Report 32, 14–20 (2002).
5. Elliott, C. London Review of Books 24, 36–37 (2002).
6. Elliott, C. The American Prospect 12, 17 (2001).
7. Youngner, S. & Arnold, R. Hastings Center Report 32,
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always
been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such
material available in our efforts to advance understanding of
biotechnology and public policy issues. We believe this constitutes a
'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section
107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section
107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those
who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included
information for research and educational purposes. For more information
go to: http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107. If you wish to use
copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go
beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.