Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ethics expendable in times of economic crisis?

I'm not suggesting that my two anecdotes can prove anything one way or another, but I wonder nevertheless whether it's purely coincidental that in times of economic crisis ethics, and more specifically bioethics is on funders' chopping blocks. At the University of Tennessee Health Science Center the Department of Human Values and Ethics, one of the oldest medical ethics programs in North America has been proposed by the medical school dean to be closed down. Its three faculty would likely lose their jobs if this came about. The dean proposed that their teaching and research be taken over by interested medical school faculty or medical practitioners. The university's endowment lost a lot of cash in the current economic meltdown, so money needs indeed to be saved, it seems. The idea though that ethics is something that could 'just' be taken over and done by someone with a strong interest or strong feeling about medical ethics is remarkable.

On last count we've had some 34 or 35 ISI (Web of Science) listed peer reviewed English language journals (and many more in other languages) serving the highly prolific academic research community in bioethics. Some of these journals have higher impact factors than biomedical journals of good international standing. Indeed, the number of excellent submissions received by some of these journals is so high that these journals publish on a monthly basis high quality peer reviewed bioethics content. Yet at the University of Tennessee a medical school dean believes work in this area could be done by someone with some kind of interest in medical ethics. It is somewhat doubtful that a similar attitude would be taken if it was pathology or surgery that's on the line. Ethics, in other words, seems to lend itself more easily to taking short-cuts when money is in short supply.

Well, in New Zealand the government announced that it will disbandon its National Bioethics Council to save money. The country's small bioethics council has produced during its life-time a whole range of excellently researched position papers on a whole range of different contentious issues, usually taking well-informed and sensible positions. I wonder whether it's really a money issue here that's at play or whether someone in power is using the economic crisis to get rid of folks saying things that the powers that are are uncomfortable with?

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