Tuesday, April 27, 2021

'Risky Research' Redux

I'm looking forward to participating in 1DaySooner's Zoom panel discussion on 'What is the Upper Limit of Risk in Clinical Trials?' next week (May 4th, @6pm ET) -- you can register here if you're interested in attending.

My basic view is that there is no absolute upper limit: given informed consent, the risk just needs to be proportionate, i.e. outweighed by the social value of the information gained from the research.

Indeed, this strikes me as entirely straightforward.  There are two key values that public policy should be guided by: beneficence (promoting the overall good) and autonomy (respecting individuals' choices about their own lives).  Conflicts between the two values can be morally tricky.  But if both of these values point in the same direction, as they do in the case of valuable research involving willing volunteers, then it really should be a no-brainer.  There's just no good reason to engage in anti-beneficent paternalism.  So: let's please stop doing that!

I think that's the simplest case for "risky research".  In my paper with Peter Singer, we additionally proposed a principle of risk parity according to which, "if it is permissible to expose some members of society (e.g. health workers or the economically vulnerable) to a certain level of ex ante risk in order to minimize overall harm from the virus, then it is permissible to expose fully informed volunteers to a comparable level of risk in the context of promising research into the virus."  Again, it just makes no sense to block willing volunteers from taking on some level of risk if such obstruction effectively condemns a far greater number of unwilling people to even greater harms.

What principled value here could outweigh the combined force of autonomy and beneficence?  I look forward to hearing what my fellow panelists have to say...

1 comment:

  1. It's perhaps helpful to add that the risk of research is not born just by volunteers participating in a research project but by the society as a whole.

    Any knowledge and power given the good guys is also given to the bad guys. As example, a gene editing technique used to create a better vacine might also be used to create a more dangerous virus.

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