Ethics Day draws capacity crowd
By Eddy Ball
Ethics training programs traditionally present a challenge for organizers. As NIEHS Deputy Ethics Counselor Bruce Androphy, J.D., admitted during the fourth annual NIEHS Ethics Day May 21, “Making ethics fun and interesting is not an easy task.”
Androphy and his team pulled out all the stops again this year, in their quest to turn the discussion of ethics into an event that would attract people from all sectors of NIEHS, for something exciting as well as instructional. As Herculean as that task may have seemed, the members of the Ethics Office succeeded famously.
The team interspersed two hot-topic talks on applied ethics, with seven short and humorous homemade videos, concluding the program with a game of Ethics Bingo that turned the mastery of ethical concepts into a laughter-filled competition. The team also enlisted the musical talent and wit of NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who has made ethics one of her top priorities at NIEHS.
“This [annual Ethics Day] is a very, very special thing that we do here at NIEHS,” Birnbaum told the audience. “It’s really not done anywhere else that I know of, certainly not at [other parts of] NIH, and we’d love to export it.”
“It’s really a great opportunity for all of us to learn something new to update our knowledge of ethics and bioethics issues,” she said. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity to have some fun and play some ethical games … [and] I hope most of it you will remember.”
Ethics in the workplace and in society
Before moving into the more serious portion of the program, Birnbaum and Androphy led the audience in an a cappella performance of “Filing Day,” sung to the music of the Beatles’ classic “Yesterday.” Birnbaum’s lyrics offered a humorous take on the ethics requirements and the consequences of failure to comply.
This year’s featured guest speaker was Cheryl Kane-Piasecki, a program analyst in the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Training Products Development Section. Kane-Piasecki addressed a “New OGE Game Changer — Service on Professional Boards.”
The presentation outlined new rules changing a regulation that, since 1996, has prohibited federal employees from serving in their official capacity on the board of a nonprofit, without a waiver from their agency. The waivers could be difficult to obtain and effectively discouraged employees from accepting positions on everything from scientific panels to neighborhood boards.
According to Kane-Piasecki, although the new rules expand opportunities for agencies to create arrangements for allowing more employees to serve on boards, they in no way release employees from their other ethical obligations in regard to conflict of interest. “I personally think this is a great move,” said Androphy about the new rules, echoing the widespread support for the changes among advocacy groups and federal employees.
With the event’s second presentation by NIEHS Bioethicist David Resnik, J.D., Ph.D., on “Food Ethics: Public Health Versus Human Freedom,” the program shifted focus from the practical workplace issues to philosophical considerations in public policy. Resnik analyzed efforts to legislate better health, by restricting sales of unhealthy food or discouraging poor eating habits through punitive taxation. “How should society balance these competing values [of individual freedom and the greater good of public health]?” he asked.
According to Resnik, there are no simple answers to the question of when paternalism is justified to protect people from themselves, as in restrictions on junk food to combat obesity; to promote safety for susceptible populations, such as children with peanut allergies; or to guard society against additional healthcare expense, as in motorcycle helmet laws. Age and competency considerations can justify restriction of individual freedom, and, he said, “I think the numbers do matter here.” The more people affected and the more expense involved can be central considerations in which way the regulatory pendulum swings — toward more individual freedom, or toward the greater social good.