Environmental Factor, July 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Annual Ethics Day probes, triggers interest
By Josh Zeldin
Birnbaum welcomed members of the audience and told listeners, "I think you know I am committed to a strong ethics program." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Shepherd emphasized a message that NIEHS employees have heard many times from Androphy and others in the Office of Ethics: Take the time to ask about situations and activities that could be perceived as crossing the line between official and personal. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Contractor Fanny Augustin, left, and Robin Jones enjoy one of the lighter moments of Shepherd's discussion. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Most of the audience, including NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., joined in the merriment. That afternoon, Woychik introduced Miller and helped moderate the animated question and answer session. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
As Larry, left, emcees Ethics Jeopardy, Androphy laughs along with the audience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
The NIEHS Office of Ethics continued where it left off the previous year, with a program featuring three notable speakers for the second annual Ethics Day, May 25 in Rodbell Auditorium (see story(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/july/inside-ethics.cfm)). Organized by Bruce Androphy, J.D., director of the Office of Ethics(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/ethics/index.cfm) and deputy ethics counselor, the event attracted NIEHS employees and guests, including several visitors from the National Human Genome Research Institute.
The underlying goal of Ethics Day was to provide an open forum for discussing ethics in the work place, with special emphasis on biomedical research, and providing ample opportunity for questions and comments about regulatory paperwork and forms, ambiguous research scenarios, and the line between official and outside activities. The speakers promoted healthy and at times probing discussions of how to avoid unethical conduct in the future as well as tackle any current issues.
Separating official and private activities
Kicking off the presentations was Patrick Shepherd, a training specialist at the U.S. Office of Government Ethics(http://www.usoge.gov/) . After welcome remarks by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and an introduction by NIEHS Ethics Coordinator Jackie Stillwell, Shepherd opened his presentation with a discussion of the sometimes subtle distinctions between official work duties and outside activities that could possibly be or even appear to be of ethical concern.
The presentation led to questions from the audience, many about the sometimes burdensome paperwork involved in disclosing outside activities and the limitations they experience interacting professionally with people outside the government. Shepherd acknowledged the concerns of some attendees and assured the audience, "We're looking for ways you can do that within the rules."
Offering the audience an opportunity for active participation, the next activity of the day involved a lighthearted Ethics Jeopardy competition, with attendees split into four teams. Directed by North Carolina Central University law student Tomasi Larry, the competition generated a stimulating discussion of ethical topics both within teams and between competing teams. Categories included Prohibited Gifts, Ethics Basics, Bioethics, and Movies and Books.
The lessons of New York's Troopergate
Following a short break, attendees gathered for a lunchtime presentation by Meave Tooher, J.D., an attorney who formerly worked with Androphy at the New York State Commission on Public Integrity. Tooher discussed the commission's investigation into the scandal surrounding Elliot Spitzer in 2007, dubbed "Troopergate" by the New York media, although the name has since become more widely associated with a scandal in Alaska the following year. Central to Tooher's story was the persistence of investigators who worked their way through thousands of e-mails and confidential documents they obtained from often-reluctant sources.
Relating these practices concerning confidentiality to the NIEHS workplace, Tooher observed, "Email is one of the most dangerous vehicles out there... [and] you have to assume that e-mail is going to be read by the world." Tooher warned employees to be cautious in handling classified documents. She also stressed the importance of seeking guidance and advice if uncertainty arises and of speaking up when something seems unethical. "If you know someone is doing the wrong thing, it is incumbent to bring it to their attention."
Assessing the social value of biomedical research
The final event of the day was a presentation by Franklin Miller, Ph.D.(http://www.bioethics.nih.gov/people/miller-bio.shtml) , senior faculty in the Department of Bioethics at NIH. Miller's presentation sparked a lively discussion among attendees about the definition of research coercion of human subjects and how to assess the potential social value of research that could possibly harm participants. Miller urged attendees to appreciate the ambiguity associated with medical ethics and underscored the importance of such issues as the risk of mortality in research and compensation for research participation.
Miller cautioned his listeners that they might find more questions than answers in their quest. "Bad things do happen in unpredictable ways," Miller argued, "but just because it [a clinical trial] turned out bad doesn't mean it was unethical."
(Josh Zeldin is a summer intern with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison. He is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)