Friday, September 02, 2011

A couple of old friends in the news

The Pipeline Affair

The other day James Hanson and Darryl Hannah were arrested at a demonstration protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. They were among hundreds who have been arrested protesting the pipeline this summer. Dr. Hanson has done great service at some personal risk by fighting political bosses in defense of the validity of the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change.

The pipeline is proposed as part of a system to transport petroleum from very large oil shale deposits in Canada to refineries in the United States. It is very controversial. Some proponents believe that a Canadian supply of a large amount of petroleum to the United States would be good for the economy and that a Canadian supply would be more dependable than current supplies. Some Canadians oppose the project saying that it will threaten Canada's energy supply in the long run and that there are not enough current benefits to the Canadian economy to make it worthwhile. Hanson fears the impact of the exploitation of oil shale deposits on climate change. Some environmentalists worry about the risks to the environment from pumping large amounts of oil long distances. Indians are organizing over concerns for the impacts on the lands that are occupied by Indian groups. And of course, there are firms that have economic interests in the building and operating the pipeline and in the refineries that would refine the oil.

Since the pipeline would be international, the State Department has a key responsibility for the environmental impact statement. Assistant Secretary of State Kerry Ann Jones recently gave a press conference explaining the environmental impact statement and indicating that a decision would be made in the future as to whether to permit the pipeline construction. That decision will seek to balance the potential gains for the United States with the risks involved.

I don't understand the details, but I have confidence in Dr. Jones. She has worked in USAID, in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (acting for some time as the President's Science Advisor). and as Director of the Office of International Affairs of NSF before taking on her current responsibilities several years ago as head of the State Department Bureau responsible for Oceans, Environment and Science and Technology. I have known Kerry Ann since she was doing a AAAS Post Doctoral Fellowship on international science and technology policy. We worked together, and I saw her intelligence, he deep knowledge base, and her deep concern to do the right thing.

The Guatemala Syphilis Scandal

Science Insider, a publication of the AAAS, writes:
An exhaustive high-level review of unethical syphilis experiments conducted in Guatemala by U.S. researchers in the 1940s has found little to redeem the work or its lead researcher. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues concluded that the study was shoddy scientifically and did not meet ethical standards at the time.
Dr. John Cutler, then a young public health worker, was a key person in the research and indeed much of the criticism of the study is based on records included in papers he left that were studied after his death. The experimental work was under the authority of the U.S. Public Health Service, the Pan American Sanitary Bureau and the Ministry of Health of Guatemala. Cutler was also involved in the frequently condemned Tuskeegee Syphilis study which followed an African American cohort of men with the disease for decades, without treatment even long after antibiotics were available to treat it.

Dr. Cutler rose to be an Assistant Surgeon General in the Public Health Service, then Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization, and ended his career at the University of Pittsburgh where he served as the Chair of the Department of Health Administration and Dean of the School of Public Health. Thus he had a most distinguished career in public health, working often in places that put his own health at some risk. (I know he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis late in life, a disease he probably contracted through his work.)

I knew Dr. Cutler for some years and we worked together when he volunteered to work with me and others on an international health policy study in the White House in 1977. By that time he was a highly respected, senior public health expert, highly regarded for his devotion to his profession and to global health. I find it all but impossible to believe him guilty of unethical behavior earlier in his career.

It is clear that there has been a great improvement in the ethical conduct of biomedical research since the syphilis studies were done, and that researchers have learned to be far more aware and careful of the impact of research on human subjects. I would guess that Dr. Cutler was working collaboratively with colleagues in Guatemala who were responsible that the ethical conduct of research they were conducting with Guatemalan citizens in Guatemala; not only would the ethical standards of the two countries have been different, but in the 1940s the systems to assure the ethical conduct of research were probably even less developed in Guatemala than in the United States. Dr. Cutler would have been in a very difficult professional position in the collaborative management of the experimental program.

It is often unjust to judge people's actions in the past according to the ethical standards of our time. Remember that the highly respected founding fathers of the United States lived in a slave holding society and wrote a constitution designed to assure that slavery would continue in this country in perpetuity.

Perhaps we should not judge John without (at least virtually) walking in his shoes for a time. Any of us could fall into ethical traps, especially I think early in a career working in difficult circumstances to achieve hugely important goals.

A Final Word

I am extremely glad that Kerry Ann Jones is in the middle of the decision making about the Keystone pipeline. I believe both she and John Cutler to have been very ethical people. The difference is that Kerry Ann is now much more experienced than was John when he made his mistakes. Dr. Jones has been tested by decades of government work in areas of increasing responsibility, and can be depended upon not ony to bring her scientific and technological knowledge to bear on the decisions, but also to work hard to assure that the ethical concerns are at the forefront in the decision making.

No comments: