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Thursday, November 18, 2010

When Penn met Emory

See the photos...

What did Penn say about the evening?

Universities on the Leading Edge: Advancing Dialogue in Bioethics

The title of Wednesday night's co-sponsored presidential conversation may have sounded intimidating--particularly for those who are not bioethically inclined. But the attitude of the hundreds of Emory and University of Pennsylvania alumni, faculty, staff, and students who attended was so open and welcoming, any content-related anxieties disappeared faster than the hors d'oeuvres.

The event, which was the EAA's first in tandem with Penn, followed a two-day meeting at the CDC of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Penn President Amy Gutmann is the commission chair, and Emory President Jim Wagner is vice chair. The evening also marked the first EAA event at the CDC, and if its success is any indication, it won't be the last.

From the beginning, Gutmann and Wagner had an easy chemistry. It helped make what in lesser hands would have been an impenetrable scientific wonkfest into an engaging, accessible, and enlightening conversation.

Moderators Kathy Kinlaw 79C 85T, associate director of the Center for Ethics at Emory, and Jonathan Moreno, David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, helped in that regard as well, keeping the conversation moving at a brisk, but not unrelenting, pace.

Following introductions, Wagner and Gutmann delivered opening statements, then traded answers on questions provided by the both the moderators and the audience. The pair played off each other well. Subjects included the definition of bioethics, an exploration of universities' roles in bioethical discussions, and much more.

The evening had many memorable highlights (No Strings Attached's pitch-perfect renditions of the University of Pennsylvania Anthem and the Emory Alma Mater was one) and lots of memorable quotes .... some of them are below, with moderator questions included where applicable.

Opening statements ...

Wagner: We need people who feel confident in our abilities to exercise judgment based on ethics and our ability to make decisions based on moral principle. And I suggest to you--in fact, I insist--that our colleges and universities may be almost exclusively the intellectual breeding ground to produce people and ideas to meet these vital and timeless needs of society.

Gutmann: It is really important to bring the theoretical together with the practical, both inside and outside our universities. It is wonderful to see how this is happening on the president's commission. Everyone here recognizes the importance of universities to furthering the disposition and the ability to deliberate among people who disagree. That's something that brings Jim and myself together--engineer and political philosopher, differences aside.

Bioethics ... what does it mean?

Gutmann: The expansion of science, technology, and medicine has called into question how doctors should treat their patients, what kind of hospital practices there should be, and what are the benefits and the risks of emerging technologies, such as synthetic biology, neuroscience, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering. Bioethics spans a whole range of questions about distribution of resources, the treatment of individual, vulnerable people, and also the best use of new, emerging technologies.

Wagner: In the early days, bioethics was almost entirely concerned with medical issues. But much of what we are talking about now in bioethics has to do with things we call 'organisms' that not too many decades ago we weren't even sure were life.

What does the future hold?

Wagner: It might not be far from the truth to imagine the last century as a century focused on technologies of transportation, communications, computing, and synthetic materials. We may now be in a century that one day will be called the bio-century.

How can universities foster ethical behavior?

Wagner: Many universities as part of their undergraduate curriculum have writing-intensive courses. You need so many "Ws" on a transcript. What would it mean if there were "E" courses? When a biology professor is talking about genetics, he or she would have the opportunity to introduce ethical considerations into the classes and the examinations.

Gutmann: When H1N1 broke out, there were big questions about the production of the vaccine and its distribution. Who gets it first? At how much cost? What are the best incentives for experimentation? For instance, if you experiment on human subjects, what do you owe them? All of these questions ... if universities don't ask them and try to come up with really good answers--even if they are not universally accepted answers, but at least well-reasoned answers, nobody else is going to do it.

What are the values and skills that university presidents bring to the commission?

Gutmann: One of the takeaways from this evening for all of us, I think, certainly from Jim and my own experience on the commission, is how far universities have come in demonstrating the importance of the integration of knowledge and how important it is to be committed to showing what knowledge can do for society.

Jim and I really believe that we are stronger as individuals and our institutions are stronger to the extent that we can attract an incredible diversity of really smart people and encourage them to want to work together to produce something--whatever it is--that is bigger and better than anything they can do by themselves.

-- Eric Rangus, director of communications, EAA

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