Corporate “Use” of Ethicists & (Mis)management of Ethical Issues

Corporations often rely on all kinds of expert advice: they hire consultants to advise them on management strategies, finance, HR decisions, team-building, marketing, and even ethics. At one level of analysis ethics advice is just one more type of expert advice, the integration of which into corporate strategy and decision-making is part of the challenge of management.

Nowhere is that challenge more, well, challenging than in the world of biotech.

See this current posting by Glenn McGee on the Bioethics Blog: The Kevorkianization of Stem Cell Research. Glenn is harshly critical of the way the company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) has “handled” the controversy over stem cell research. In a paper due to be published in Nature, ACT reports (per a company press release) that “company scientists have successfully generated human embryonic stem cells (hES cells) using an approach that does not harm embryos”.

Glenn’s 2 main objections:
1) ACT seems to be using Ronald Green, chairman of ACT’s Ethics Board, as a PR mouthpiece.

Here’s the quote from ACT’s ethics advisor, included in the press release:

“One of the major ethical objections of those who oppose the generation of human embryonic stems cells is that all techniques, until now, have resulted in the destruction of the embryo,” stated Ronald Green, Ph.D., Director of Dartmouth College’s Ethics Institute and Chairman of ACT’s Ethics Advisory Board. “This technique overcomes this hurdle and has the potential to play a critical role in the advancement of regenerative medicine. It also appears to be a way out of the current political impasse in this country and elsewhere.”

2) ACT seems to be choosing a path that is adding fuel to the stem cell controversy, under the guise of trying to be responsive to the moral views of people who oppose such research. Glenn writes:

The controversy proves unambiguously that ACT can cause half of the U.S., including the intended audience to be appeased, to believe that the people with whom they disagree are not so much trying to respect their beliefs as to create monstrous half-embryo things using technologies that only Frankenstein could love – and then to duck and cover when things go badly. And to sell it all with the ethicist who is “unpaid” doing PR.

What interests me, here, is that this is a collective action problem. ACT (and every other firm doing stem-cell research) has an individual interest in hyping its own work, grabbing some limelight and maybe attracting some more venture capital, etc. But the stem cell “industry” (including corporate and public-sector researchers) and potential patients of stem-cell-based therapies have an interest in slow, steady, un-hyped progress. So, individually rational behaviour holds the potential to result in what are, for the group, very bad outcomes, especially if too many companies engage in that behaviour. (And, if ACT management has misjudged things, the bad outcomes may even be sufficiently bad eventually to outweigh, from ACT’s own point of view, the short-term benefit ACT gains from the hype.)

Actually, Glenn’s analysis points to two different collective action problems, two different ways in which ACT’s profit-seeking hype may do harm to the world of stem-cell research. The first involves ACT’s apparent willingness to play the “embryos-are-sacred” game, by finding creative new ways to create pseudo-embryos from which stem cells can be extracted. Glenn seems to be arguing (and he knows a heckuva lot more about this stuff than I do) that companies doing stem-cell research ought instead to challenge frankly the idea that a cluster of 8 or 12 cells is a human life, rather than accepting that controversially conservative premise. The second collective action problem involves the apparently ham-fishted way in which ACT has approached the appeasement of anti-stem-cell lobby. ACT itself — an industry leader — might have something to gain (or at least not much to lose) from bungling their efforts at appeasement. But the world of stem-cell research, as a whole, might have much more to lose.

I’ll give the last word to Glenn:

I continue to be amazed at the degree to which this company manages to do more harm to the battle to get embryonic stem cell research funded than could any concerted right wing campaign against the research. ACT is the Kevorkian of stem cell research.

Relevant Links:
ACT’s press release

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