Monday, March 21, 2011

Bioethical Issues Commission Narrows Scope of Investigation

In January, I complained that President Obama had asked the Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues for "a thorough review of human subjects protection to determine if federal regulations and international standards adequately guard the health and well-being of participants in scientific studies supported by the federal government."

One of my complaints was that "the commission lacks the full range of expertise to review all the federal regulations and international standards that govern human subjects protection. Since the 1960s, committees and commissions composed of medical researchers, psychological researchers, and bioethicists have advised regulators and presidents about human subjects protections without adequately consulting researchers in the social sciences and humanities, who then find themselves subject to rules they were not allowed to shape."

Fortunately, the commission has addressed, if quietly, this particular concern. In a recent press release, the commission announced the formation of an International Research Panel that will "convene in a series of meetings, or Consultation, that will examine:

  • "The dominant norms, and competing alternatives, driving the ethics of medical research in different global regions outside of the U.S.;
  • "The conflicts, if any, between U.S. norms and international standards;
  • "The challenges facing researchers conducting U.S.-funded research in global settings; and
  • "How best to address any major differences in regional norms for medical research."

Thus, the "scientific studies supported by the federal government" in Obama's charge have become "medical research" in the commission's plans. With luck, this means that the social sciences will be left alone.

I still don't see how a group that may meet only three times and has only nine months to work can expect to make a serious contribution to complex debates over medical research. But at least the commission seems to have narrowed the scope of the investigation to something more relevant to the Guatemala revelations and its own expertise.

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