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Deliberating Promissory Technologies

The UC Davis Bioethics Program and the UC Davis Ethics Commons held their 5th annual Research Policy and Ethics Symposium on Tuesday, May 22. Titled “Deliberating Promissory Technologies”, the symposium focused on ethical quandaries raised by new biotechnologies. Professionals and academics from UC Davis, Arizona State University and Oregon State University presented some of the legal, ethical and pragmatic problems posed by nascent capabilities in the life sciences, and pointed towards some future avenues of public discussion. The symposium was sponsored by the UC Davis Center for Science and Innovation Studies and the UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center.

Tuesday’s symposium was preceded by a talk on Monday a Distinguished Bioethics lecture given by Benjamin Hurlbut, who also presented the symposium’s keynote address. Hurlbut, Associate Professor of Biology and Society in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, studies the governance of biomedical research from legal, ethical and political standpoints, examining the interplay of science and technology with shifting notions of democracy, religious and moral pluralism, and public reason. He is the author of Experiments in Democracy: Human Embryo Research and the Politics of Bioethics (Columbia University Press, 2017) and co-editor of Perfecting Human Features: Transhuman Visions and Technological Imaginations (Springer, 2016). Hurlbut advocated an approach towards bioethical issues from a stance of ambivalence. He encouraged an explicit awareness of the ways in which ethical issues are converted into logistical problems: often, he said, an opportunity for public debate is lost when such topics are reduced to narrower legal or technical questions. Rather than seeking closed, categorical answers about issues of moral values and biological research, he said that a stance of ambivalence works to keep these questions, with their trouble and promise, out in the open.

Sharyn Clough, Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University, gave the Plenary address titled “Weaving Politics and Science.” In her talk she built upon earlier work showing that not all political values are biases: where political values are relevant and well-supported they can increase the empirical strength of claims and make science more objective. Here, she moved on to a discussion of how this can happen, focusing on the skills required for effective political deliberations. The two primary skills she identified were empathy and epistemic humility. In the difficult topic of childhood vaccines, for instance, she asked how we can focus on common values, like the health and wellbeing of children, to empathize with those with whom we disagree. This material is from a book she is currently working on, tentatively titled Hearts and Minds: How to Have Difficult Conversations over Divisive Topics with People You Don’t Like.

UC Davis Professors from a variety of departments including Philosophy, Law, Religious Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies also presented three panels: Framing Chimeras, Thinking Humanoids, and Democratizing Science. Each presented an aspect of their work which raises significant ethical questions: at what point should “organoids” grown from human brain cells be considered human? How much human brain should a mouse be allowed to have? How do we define and demarcate types of organisms as chimeric mixings become increasingly common? How ought scientists and regulators make these kinds of conversations open and democratic?

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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