New ethics consulting service to help UW scientists navigate gray areas

MADISON — A new service will provide the University of Wisconsin-Madison research community with another checkpoint on ethical challenges that arise across the research spectrum, from study design to the implications of results.

The Research Ethics Consultation Service (RECS), sponsored by UW-Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research, is available to all researchers at UW-Madison and affiliated research centers. The service is co-directed by Norman Fost, professor of pediatrics and bioethics in the School of Medicine and Public Health; and Pilar Ossorio, professor of law and bioethics and ethics scholar-in-residence at the Morgridge Institute.

The RECS is meant to supplement a range of existing research oversight groups that deal with human subjects, animal welfare or other research ethics issues, says Ossorio. There are many ethical issues that current regulations don’t address, or that emerge during the research process itself.

“Even the most thoughtful scientists will run into things that they hadn’t anticipated,” says Ossorio. “Some issues may have obvious answers, but there are a lot of areas where the lines are blurrier and you have to make judgment calls, because that’s the nature of science.”

The service may get 20-30 inquiries annually, based on consultation programs Ossorio studied at peer universities. The RECS is almost certain to see questions arise in the area of genetic information, where a host of difficult challenges are coming from whole genome sequencing and genetic markers linked to serious diseases.

“It may not be more difficult to do ethics in this era, but we simply have more data, more researchers and more participants than ever before,” she says.

Many topics can be covered through “curbside consultations,” where the team can identify generally accepted ethical pathways. That may mean passing along a landmark journal article or spelling out a course of action.

On more hotly contested issues, where there is no clear path in the literature, the RECS will appoint an expert panel composed of UW-Madison talent best suited to address the issue. Areas of expertise are likely to include human subjects, animal welfare, intellectual property or conflict of interest. These panels will meet with the requestor, gather the facts, review what others have done, and offer both recommended courses of action and counterpoints. Within the limits of the law, consultations will be kept confidential as the requestor desires.

“The scientist may not always agree with us and have a different weighing and measuring calculus than we do, but that’s okay,” she says. “We are there to help them deliberate and think it through.”

When should researchers consider this service? Ossorio says people should follow instincts when they feel some “uneasiness” about where a project is headed, or the social implications of research results. She says the research enterprise will be stronger if researchers anticipate and prevent ethical problems, rather than attempting to “clean up” after a problem occurred.

For more information, contact Fost at 608-263-8562, ncfost@wisc.edu; or Ossorio at 608-316-4650, pnossorio@wisc.edu.

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—    Brian Mattmiller, 608-316-4332, bmattmiller@morgridge.org