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President Announces Appointees for Bioethics Commission

President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order on stem cells and a Presidential Memorandum on scientific integrity, Monday, March 9, 2009 SOURCE: AP/Gerald Herbert President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order on stem cells and a Presidential Memorandum on scientific integrity, March 9, 2009. The bioethics commission continues the president's commitment to ethical scientific policies.

Yesterday President Obama announced his appointees to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The 10-member list encompasses individuals with a wide breadth of knowledge, as well as deep experience in the clinical, legal, and advocacy worlds. The range of skills in this group will allow them to tackle the expansive set of issues laid out in the Executive Order creating the commission, which included stem cells, neuroscience, and the intersection of science and human rights.

Most importantly, the commitment to including leading minds from “bioethics, science, medicine, technology, engineering, law, philosophy, theology,” and the social sciences underscores President Obama’s desire to craft ethical scientific policies that are pragmatic and solve real problems facing U.S. citizens. They will address questions that knit together policies for expanding scientific innovation, expanding access to quality health care, and protecting citizens from harm.

The president issued the EO initiating the commission last November. At that time, the president did announce the chair and vice chair, whose credentials signaled the practical focus of the group. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and a political theorist, is the chair, and James W. Wagner, president of Emory University and an engineer, is the vice chair.

Notably, the EO made it explicit that no more then three members could be bioethicists or scientists from within government, signaling the president’s intention to recruit public servants. The nominees filling those spots are: Christine Grady, the Acting Chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, Alexander Garza, the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, and Nelson Michael, the director of the Division of Retrovirology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the director of the U.S. Military HIV Research program. All will bring with them expertise in the mechanics of federal policymaking.

The other appointees are: Lonnie Ali, wife of Muhammad Ali and an advocate for Parkinson’s and biomedical research funding; Anita Allen, a professor of law and philosophy and a dean at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Barbara Atkinson, the executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center and executive dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine; Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Vanderbilt University; Stephen Hauser, a professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of California—San Francisco; Raju Kucherlapati, a professor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Genetics and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Daniel Sulmasy, a Franciscan Friar who is a professor of medical ethics in the Department of Medicine and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

It remains up to the president to determine the commission’s first assignment, but some of the potential topics laid out in the executive order have grabbed recent headlines, including “intellectual property issues involving genetic screening.” This is a timely matter in light of the recent invalidation of gene patents linked to breast cancer by a federal court in New York.

As Jonathan Moreno explained last month, ethical policies require a careful process, and the NIH implementation of the administration’s rules for human embryonic stem cell research are a case in point. While some scientists have chaffed at the time it takes for an advisory board to vet new cell lines for research, the deliberate steps for approval pay careful attention to the latest science and core bioethical questions concerning informed consent for tissue donors. In contrast, the policy recommended by President George W. Bush’s bioethics council was to draw an arbitrary line in time—lines derived before were considered acceptable, those after were not. While the rule was expedient, it was neither attentive to the science nor an ethical proposal.

The full announcement, as well as bios for the nominees, are available at the commission’s website, bioethics.gov.

Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the managing editor for Science Progress.

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