February 25, 2008
Q&A: John Banja
A resource for researchers
By carol clark
The Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute recently used part of an NIH grant to establish the Research Ethics Consultation Service: a panel of ethicists and scientists from Emory, Georgia Tech and Morehouse School of Medicine, to give researchers a resource for expert advice on ethical issues. John Banja, assistant director of health
science ethics at Emory’s Ethics Center, heads the panel.
Emory Report: What prompted the formation of the research consultation service?
John Banja: Just as the Karen Quinlan case galvanized America on ethical questions of medicine, we have now entered an era when advancements in scientific research are inherently loaded with ethical implications. A geneticist recently asked me, “Do you ethicists ever wonder what’s going to happen when we learn how to slow down or even halt the aging process?” I said, “Sure, but we won’t have to worry about that in our lifetimes.” He said: “Give us 30 years.”
Emory is a research dynamo – we are among an elite group of research institutions in the world – and we believe that researchers will increasingly need to have thoughtful conversations about ethical issues.
ER: What is an example of an ethical question faced by researchers?
JB: One classic problem is the therapeutic misconception of participants in a randomized, clinical trial. No matter how carefully you explain that they may be receiving a placebo, a certain number of them will steadfastly believe that everyone is receiving a therapeutic benefit.
Conflicts of interest involving funding are also common. A researcher may be a paid consultant with the company that’s funding his or her research, or own shares of stock in that company. While it’s not necessarily unethical to have a conflict of interest, its occurrence raises all kinds of questions that need careful consideration.
ER: What will the panel do when it receives a question from a researcher?
JB: We will evaluate the issue and make a recommendation. That recommendation will not be binding. We are a support service – not a compliance or regulatory body.
ER: What are the long-range goals of the consultation service?
JB: We want to foster dialogue and raise awareness among researchers about how their work is permeated with questions of values, risks and benefits, and justice. With the permission of our researchers, we want to create a Web site that contains questions that were raised and the opinions of our panel. We may include a blog, where people could weigh in. A lot of people believe that that’s what ethics ultimately is – a conversation that never stops.