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Science Careers Blog

February 28, 2012

Who Watches the Watchers?

On 13 February, Celltex Therapeutics Corporation, a Houston, Texas, stem cell company, announced the appointment of Glenn McGee as its new "president of Ethics and Strategic Initiatives." The "internationally respected bioethicist" would be responsible "for assuring that all of the firm's work...will meet the highest ethical standards....," said the company release. "We wanted Glenn at Celltex because...we have been determined to do things right," said Celltex chairman and CEO David Eller, quoted in the release.

But some of McGee's erstwhile colleagues in academic bioethics are criticizing his move from the position of founding editor-in-chief of the prestigious American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) to the world of biotech commerce, as well as the way he made the move.  The complex controversy has numerous aspects and has received a good deal of coverage, including at Inside Higher Ed, Slate, Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature , and a number of blogs including Biopolitical Times. Scientific American covered an earlier dispute involving McGee a few years back.

The current objections include the very idea that a bioethicist could retain professional standing while working for a commercial company rather than for an institution presumably independent of the entities being evaluated.  Also controversial are the facts that McGee was apparently working at Celltex before severing his ties to AJOB and that Celltex is associated with a South Korean firm called RNL, whose treatments caused two deaths. McGee, as it happens, had earlier cleared RNL of ethical violations in an investigation. Meanwhile, back at AJOB, some editors have resigned over disputes with McGee, and McGee's wife, also a bioethicist, will take over as one of two co-editors-in-chief when McGee finally leaves his post on 1 March.  Some criticize this arrangement as nepotism.  There are more accusations I haven't even mentioned. Even Texas Governor Rick Perry gets into the act.

Other bioethicists, however, defend McGee, and figuring out who is right --doing the analysis needed to untangle the many actions and arguments -- is way beyond the scope of this blog. What's important from our standpoint is that bioethicists urgently need to sort out the issues involved in the relationship between their field and commercial enterprise and come to some agreement about what constitutes appropriate behavior. 

The ethical issues involved in today's ever more advanced treatments are increasingly complex, and the people developing and applying the science generally lack the training to ensure that patients, subjects, resarchers and the public are protected from unethical exploitation or damage.  Analysis and standards developed by people who have that training are essential. L'affaire McGee, though disconcerting, at least has the advantage of exposing an important area that needs serious work, and drawing attention to a possible career path for at least a few scholars with scientific inclinations.

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