What Is Bioethics?

“Bioethics” is an interdisciplinary field that analyzes how human values and ideas about fairness, respect, benefit and harm do and should shape the practices, institutions, cultures and social impacts of science. Bioethicists may have professional training in a variety of different fields, including philosophy, medicine or nursing, law, public health, sociology or anthropology. Normative bioethicists develop arguments regarding what scientists ought to do or ought not to do. Descriptive bioethicists conduct empirical research to answer questions such as:

  • What are scientists doing and how are they thinking about what they are doing?
  • What are the barriers to using new science in the medical context?
  • What are the attitudes, beliefs and preferences of non-expert publics concerning a given area of science?

Bioethics includes topics within the general area of “responsible conduct of research,” including the professional responsibilities of scientists and research misconduct. For instance, scientists should not engage in fabrication, falsification or plagiarism when performing science or reporting research results.

  • Data falsification: Manipulation of research materials, equipment or processes, or changing or omitting data, so that the research record is inaccurate.
  • Data fabrication: Making up data that never existed.
  • Plagiarism: Copying other people’s ideas, data, publications or conclusions and claiming them as one’s own.

In addition, bioethics covers a much broader territory, including questions such as:

  • What rules and codes of conduct ought to govern the use of non-human animals and the participation of human beings in research?
  • What rights do people have in biological materials derived from their bodies and used in research?
  • How should we protect the privacy of human research participants?
  • What standards of evidence should be used to determine whether a drug or device should be approved for marketing?
  • How might the conduct or results of scientific research pose risks to various segments of society or the environment, and what steps could we take to minimize these risks?