The BEST way to discuss research

To really understand hot-button issues in biotechnology, such as genetically modified foods or gene patents, it’s important to know something about science, law, and ethics. “Usually, discussions about law and ethics as they apply to science, and vice versa, are misinformed at best,” said Corey Morris ’03, research technician for Associate Professor of Biology Leilani Miller. “It is often difficult for a geneticist to fully understand the legal ramifications of her technology, just as it may be difficult for a professor of law or ethics to understand the implications that policy may have on essential basic research.”

In an effort to bridge that gap in understanding, Morris and Miller participated in SCU’s BEST pilot program, sponsored by the High Tech Law Institute, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. BEST (Biotechnology, Ethics, Society, Tomorrow) convened students and scholars from the Ethics Center, the School of Law, and the Department of Biology to pool their knowledge on these complex issues. Law Professor June Carbone used the sessions to “put the finishing touches” on an article on patents and ethics for the International Review of Law, Computers, and Technology. She also said the program had a real impact on her fall quarter class, “Biotechnology and Social Justice.” Law student Shanshan Zhang is also working on research in patent law, especially as it relates to genes. “Not only did I enjoy the reading materials and discussions,” she said, “I learned tremendously about the different professional fields that I would not otherwise have an opportunity to explore.”

That’s exactly the outcome Miller was hoping to foster when the idea for BEST first was raised at a meeting of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society. Miller, who team-teaches a class called “Ethical Issues in Biotechnology and Genetics” with Ethics Center Assistant Director Margaret R. McLean, said she is concerned about “properly educating the people who will eventually be involved in public policy so they can make more informed decisions.”

Santa Clara is an unusually fertile environment for cross-disciplinary programs like BEST, according to McLean, who also participated in BEST. “A lot of schools are too big or have departments that are not used to talking to each other. BEST is not only interdepartmental, it’s inter-college.”

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