Safeguarding Human Progress!
Scientific, technological, and cultural change can take place at incredible pace. In an interview with Dr. Jean Enno Charton, our Director of Bioethics, and Digital Ethics, we discover how the company responds to current ethical issues in a responsible and timely fashion…
Jean Enno, what purpose does our Bioethics Advisory Panel serve, and which core topics does it give guidance on?
The Bioethics Advisory Panel brings together 7 world-leading experts (from the fields of bioethics, science, medical law, and medicine) to give the company guidance on bioethical questions arising from our business and research. The panel was founded 10 years ago in response to diverse healthcare topics, including bioethical concerns which arose from fertility research. The panel has since grown in importance, as our expanding Life Science business also addresses bioethical issues. Current key areas include stem cells, fertility, handling of human bio samples, global health research, and genome editing.
In your experience, which areas have been the most challenging to address, and why?
Genome editing, and the medical treatment perspectives our research tools enable, has often led to heated debate among experts. The core question is, how do you maintain progress (which often outpaces ethical debate) as a leading innovator – while adhering to strict ethical guidelines? Our response is clear: In spite of technological progress, we don’t endorse – nor allow our – research or treatment to be applied for germ-line genome editing on embryos. And, while the use of health/patient data, and the increased use of algorithms, has sparked passionate debate, it has also demonstrated the need for additional expertise and guidance – culminating in the launch of our Digital Ethics Advisory Panel, in 2019.
How Would You Decide?
Imagine you’re working for a company that develops powerful genome editing tools, which can insert, delete, modify, or replace DNA in living organisms (including humans). Who would you sell this technology to?
In the face of rapid technological and cultural change, what advantages does our Digital Ethics Advisory Panel provide in delivering responsible governance?
Digital ethics (e.g. the ethical use of data, and algorithms) is a relatively new field that’s yet to be fully regulated - another example of technological progress outpacing policymaking. When dealing with sensitive patient data, gaining (and maintaining) trust is critical for the success of our business models in this field. And, although some business models are perfectly legal, they’re not necessarily sound, from an ethics perspective. We believe patients and healthcare facilities are more likely to share data with a partner that adheres to a clear set of guidelines (our code of digital ethics is currently in development), and a proven track record in responsible bioethical behavior.
Curiosity is about staying open to the perspectives of others. How important is it to be curious when addressing ethical questions?
Curiosity is critical when entering debates on new and rapidly-emerging fields. We need to be open and sensitive to the opinions and reactions our progress triggers. We also have a responsibility to actively engage with society, discussing the impact and consequences these new technologies may have. By doing this, we actively contribute to a more curious society – especially when it comes to responsible innovation.
Which topics will give rise to the most debate in the coming years, and how do you personally stay abreast of emerging trends/subjects?
This is always triggered by the business – we stay in close contact with colleagues from innovation fields across all sectors. Genome editing will continue to be a hot topic as well as advanced machine learning and AI. We also see cultured meat as a trend that will spark debate among our ethics board members. Engaged in global debates, our advisors recognize the need to give early guidance for new developments in science and technology.
How would you respond to those who say ethics boards stand in the way of technological progress?
Technological and medical progress that benefits society will never be blocked by an ethics board. Rather, it would accompany the process and pose key questions along the way. It's critical to consider the impact an invention could have on society – highlighting the responsibilities it might bring. It’s also vital that developments are made in an ethical manner, building trust in our company as a responsible and principled business. Based on my experience, ethics boards are more likely to support an innovation with guidance, than simply dismiss or reject it. In the past, this guidance has helped some of our businesses to develop long-term, sustainable strategies.