Scientific research

Skepticism is in order

For years, and rightly so, bioethics has wrestled with the "technological imperative." The phrase has characterized the excessive use of technology at the end of life, or the rush to unnecessary tests and procedures. Did you really need that sigmoidoscopy? But there is another neglected imperative now, the research imperative.

Try a taste of it. The Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg once said of research that "if we do not pursue new medical knowledge, the blood of those whose lives could be saved will be on our hands." Al Gore, touting the economic benefits of research, has spoken of the "sacred circle of progress and prosperity." And the present Congress, tight-fisted about welfare but exuberant about biomedical progress, gave the National Institutes of Health a 10 percent increase this year, bringing its budget to $15 billion. It is hard to argue against a highly profitable enterprise, backed by a supposed moral duty, and filled with the drama of scientific progress.

Yet increasingly the research imperative has provoked ethical controversy and, here and there, strong resistance-but so far, not enough resistance. The first struggle took place in the 1960s when, to combat the abuse of human subjects in medical research, the government established an elaborate system of institutional review boards. Many scientists of that era complained bitterly at this interference in their freedom, predicting the end of...

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About the Author

Daniel Callahan, a former Commonweal editor, is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and the author of What Price Better Health: Hazards of the Research Imperative.