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Name this Academic Area!

I sat down to write a blog post about this last decade in my field of work, but I was distracted with the renewed realization that my area of work – like the decade – has no generally accepted name.   So herewith follow some musings, on names and fields.

I work on the implications for society of advances in the biosciences.  Some of those implications are legal – should fMRI-based lie detection be admitted in court?  Some of them are ethical – should we destroy human embryos for research?  Some are cultural – how will the story of human genealogy told by DNA influences cultural perceptions of human history and diversity? Some of them, for want of a better term, I call “social” – how would cheap and easy prenatal genetic testing change our society?   A few (in my work) are philosophical or even theological – what does a mechanistic understanding of the brain, and the mind it creates, say about what it means to be human?

In short, I work on the implications of the biosciences for our human cultures and societies.  The borders are a bit fuzzy – I’m not sure I would count the direct medical consequences of biomedical advances (how might successful stem cell research affect mortality rates?) but I would certainly count some of the implications of those medical advances (if life expectancy increased by 20 years on average because of biomedical advances, how would society change?).

Of course, the borders of “the biosciences” are also somewhat fuzzy.  My own work focuses on neuroscience, genetics, assisted reproduction, and stem cell research, with a foray or two into human/non-human chimeras.  Certainly synthetic biology, developmental biology, and “bio” aspects of nanotechnology would fit easily in the area I think I work in.  Ecology, evolutionary biology, and other more “environmental” fields seem to me to fit as well, though there seems to be little overlap so far.

It seems to me that this is more than just my area of work.  Many people I know, from many different disciplines, work on these kinds of issues and, more importantly from my perspective, they often work on several of them.  People who work on issues arising from the human genome also write about stem cells; people who are deeply engaged with assisted reproduction also work on neuroscience.  I think there is an academic “area” here.

Please note – I am not claiming that there is an academic “discipline” here.  I view this area as akin to, say, Latin American Studies.  Historians, economics, political scientists, linguists, literature scholars, and others who study Latin America have different intellectual approaches and methods – they are in different disciplines – but they share a common area of study.  So it is with this – scientists, lawyers, philosophers, anthropologists, physicians, scholars of religion, and others all work in this area, but without losing their old discipline, or attempting to form a new one.

So, if you have agreed with me so far, we reach the question – what should we name this area?  There are some existing contenders.

Much of it is currently referred to as “bioethics” and is done in bioethics centers, sometimes by people who call themselves, or are called by others, bioethicists.  I am not happy with that term.  It seems to me both too broad and too narrow.  I see “bioethics” as having at least three main branches, only one of which overlaps substantially with my area.  Bioethics is about medical, or, more broadly, health-related practices, such as organ transplantation or care at the end of life.  Bioethics is about the treatment of human research subjects, such the borders of research informed consent or the treatment of incidental findings in research.  And bioethics is about some of the consequences for society of advances in the biosciences.  To that extent, the area I am describing overlaps substantially with bioethics, but the part that overlaps is a subset of bioethics without a descriptive name.  I have heard it referred to as “research bioethics,” but that encompasses both human research subjects and the consequences of current (or recent) research.

But bioethics is also too narrow a term.  The “bio” is fine; it’s the “ethics” that is too restrictive.  Whether the results of fMRI-based lie detection could meet the requirements of the rules of evidence and be admitted as evidence is an interesting and potentially important question.  It is not, except by a stretching the meaning of the term so wide as to make it vacuous, an “ethical” question.  The effects of the Bayh-Dole Act on universities is another interesting question, but also one that goes well beyond issues of “ethics.”

My first post on this blog, in September 2008, was about another term, explaining why the center that generates the blog is called the Center for Law and the Biosciences.  I like the term Law and the Biosciences – not just as the name for this center but for the title of a course and a term for a subfield . . . but a subfield of law. BioLaw has also been used to describe roughly the same space, but, like Law and the Biosciences, it requires a meaningful connection to “the Law.”

What else is out there?  “Science, Technology, and Society” or “Science and Technology Studies,” might qualify, at least something that could encompass this area along with other parts of science.  STS has its own departments, degree-granting programs, and centers, but it also has its own history and culture.  Without having studied it carefully, it seems to me that STS is and has been too strongly rooted in the physical sciences, particularly in atomic physics and in computer science, to be the right home for this area.  And it has drawn people – based on my limited knowledge – predominantly from sociology and other social sciences.

History and Philosophy of Science is another fascinating field with some overlap with this area, but it really is about history and philosophy – and is dominated by historians and philosophers.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but that does not make it a good home for this area.

So what should we call this?  I suppose the most descriptive name would be something like “Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of the Biosciences.”  This obviously would be a steal from the genetics world, which has had a “Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (or Issues),” or “ELSI” program since the launch of the Human Genome Project.  ELSI, though, seems too connected to genetics to be divorced and ELSIB (ELSI in the Biosciences) is not attractive.

Interestingly, the American program took the name from a Canadian predecessor, MELSI.  The Canadians included “Moral,” which the Americans dropped.  The Canadians then dropped the whole thing and went still broader with “GE3LS”:  Genomics and its Ethical, Economic, Environmental, Legal, and Social Aspects.  This has the virtue of being comprehensive but the disadvantage (with all due respect to my friends among the subjects of Elizabeth II, Queen in Right of Canada) of being terminally clunky – not to mention the problem of how to show the “3” in superscript.

Before ELSI, another American contender had been “Genethics,” apparently coined by then-Representative Al Gore.  (Honest.)  This did not catch on in genetics (perhaps it sounded too similar and thus too cute), but has clearly won the day with neuroethics, nanoethics, and, increasingly, roboethics.  This usage is short and very catchy – I was one of the founders of the Neuroethics Society and, although I really didn’t like the narrowing I perceive in using “ethics” in the title, the term, popularized by the late William Safire, was just too magnetic to avoid.  But “Bio-ethics” is, as discussed above, already taken.

So what’s left?  Well, I’m open to reader suggestions, but here’s my current contender – Biosciences in Society, or BiS.  It has the broad term “biosciences” and the broad term “society,” which can encompass ethical, legal, social, moral, economic, cultural, environmental, and just about anything else involving humans.  And I like the preposition  “in”.  It is about the effects of the biosciences inside society and not, as “and” would imply, all the intersections between the two.  Although there are some other BIS or BiS or bis usages around, none of is terribly common:  The Bank for International Settlements is probably the most important, though I am partial to the Benevolent Irish Society, the Bismarck (North Dakota) Municipal Airport, and “Best in Show.”

Of course, the “i” is likely to drop out, leaving BS, but a bit of self-deprecatory humor is not the worst attribute for an academic area.  “Biosciences in Society.”  Think about it. Let it roll around on your tongue.  And let me know how you like it – but no denunciations without an alternative proposal that is at least equally good!

Next up:  BiS During the Decade that Still Does Not Have a Name.

Hank Greely

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