Skip to Content

Ethics for Hire

March 1, 1999

Last November, Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company based in Worcester, Mass., wanted to let the world know that it had created a human embryo using a cow’s egg. Their vehicle of choice? The front page of The New York Times. “We weren’t trying to be sensational,” CEO Michael West says of the news leak; the company was merely trying “to get a reading on the public’s acceptance.” But sensation was exactly what West generated-plus some unfavorable press coverage of a public relations strategy deemed less than wise.

Hoping to do better next time and to shield itself from criticism, Advanced Cell has begun hiring a team of professional ethical advisors. The move puts the company on the growing list of biotech firms now relying on outside expertise to sort out right from wrong when it comes to developing, marketing and talking about new technology. “Everywhere I turn, I see companies setting up ethics advisory boards [and] using bioethics consultants,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Caplan is one of the best-known bioethicists in the United States and tops many companies’ hiring lists: He helped Pfizer decide how to market Viagra, and was recently recruited by Celera Genomics (see “The Gene Factory,”) to counsel that company as it moves forward with plans to decode all human genes.

As advisors with little power, bioethicists could be used by some companies as mere window dressing. But Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., argues that the trend is sincere and irreversible. “We have learned from the graveyard of nuclear power,” says Feldbaum. “They thought the public was too ignorant to be included in the debate.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

2021 tech fails concept
2021 tech fails concept

The worst technology of 2021

Face filters, billionaires in space, and home-buying algorithms that overpay all made our annual list of technology gone wrong.

glacier near Brown Station
glacier near Brown Station

The radical intervention that might save the “doomsday” glacier

Researchers are exploring whether building massive berms or unfurling underwater curtains could hold back the warm waters degrading ice sheets.

Professor Gang Chen of MIT
Professor Gang Chen of MIT

In a further blow to the China Initiative, prosecutors move to dismiss a high-profile case

MIT professor Gang Chen was one of the most prominent scientists charged under the China Initiative, a Justice Department effort meant to counter economic espionage and national security threats.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.