Who are the most influential people in research ethics?
So my friend and co-author of this blog, Chris MacDonald, was recently honoured as one of the 100 Most Influential Persons in Business Ethics by Ethisphere Magazine, a list that also included such prominent persons as Obama Barack and Liu Qi. The criteria for the list were extensive. Ethisphere identified nine spheres in which people involved in business and business ethics could have influenced the field or the world at large, including being whistleblowers, making contributions to corporate culture and demonstrating thought leadership. Chris made the list for the Business Ethics Blog that he has been writing since 2005, and which is now the most widely read blog on business ethics.
So this led to an interesting question to ponder: Who are the 10, or 100, most influential people in research ethics?
First, it would be challenging to decide upon criteria. To begin, although many of us might consider influence to mean “having a positive effect”, influence can be, just as easily, a neutral concept. Certainly in the world of research ethics, historical figures such as Laud Humphreys, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo can be said to have been influential. While they are usually cited, alongside the people who facilitated studies such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, as examples of how not to conduct research, their influence is obvious and has been fundamental to the advancement of the field.
Second, it would be equally challenging to think about what we consider influence to be, in this particular context? Would the Chairs of ethics review boards at large, influential research-intensive universities automatically be included on such a list by virtue of their influence setting the standard for what is accepted as ethically sound research? Or would we include scholars and academics who study and write about research ethics? What about particularly ethical researchers? Would they be considered to be influential in the field?
I’m presenting this as an interesting thought experiment. Research ethics, in my experience, has been, at times, the most neglected of all of the fields in health care ethics. Research ethics has also been seen, by some, as a highly regulatory and restrictive field, more concerned with oversight and control of research than with thoughtful debate and discussion over important issues that arise. To try to decide on what it means to be influential in the field of research ethics, is, I sense, a somewhat challenging task.