Research Ethics in Space

Yes, in space. We’ve blogged before about ethical issues related to research done overseas. But research ethics in space? That’s a new one for us.

Check out this conversation with Paul Root Wolpe, from the New York Times: Scientist Tackles Ethical Questions of Space Travel

Q. AS NASA’S CHIEF BIOETHICIST, WHAT DOES YOUR WORK INVOLVE?

A. I’m an adviser to the chief medical officer for the agency. I don’t make decisions. Instead, I analyze situations and policies and offer bioethical perspectives on specific problems.

NASA does hundreds of research studies. Every astronaut who goes into space is, essentially, a human research subject. NASA’s looking at the effects of weightlessness, of G-forces and radiation on the human body. One of the things I do is look over the research protocols and make sure they are in compliance with earth-bound regulations about informed consent and health and safety. I also try to help solve some of the thorny ethical problems of medical care for astronauts in space….

A few quick thoughts:

1) My first thought is about the challenges such a unique research setting poses for Wolpe, who, from the sounds of it, essentially acts as a one-man ethics board for NASA. Nancy blogged back in June about the fact that research ethics boards typically learn, and improve, by a process of trial and error. The number of trips into space, and hence the number of space-based experiments, is tiny. That makes it hard for anyone to build up a base of expertise — assuming, as seems reasonable, that there are at least a few ethical peculiarities unique to doing research in space.

2) Nor is there going to be a body of literature to draw upon. There’s no Journal of Space-Based Research Ethics. So there won’t be any place to look to see how other people in the field have dealt with the same issues.

3) But of course, research in space isn’t totally unique: it has parallels, though maybe not precise ones. NASA isn’t technically military, but it seems reasonable to expect that research during a space mission would share some things in common with research on military personnel. And given that astronauts are basically trapped in a shuttle or space station, research on them would have something in common with research on institutionalized individuals, like prisoners.

4) Unlike most research, research on board a shuttle or space station probably blurs the line between researcher and subject. In many cases, everyone on board will play both roles. That’s unavoidable, but it’s also likely to require additional safe-guards.

5) Finally, to the extent that the military analogy is valid, the US Army is a pretty good organization to look to in terms of having well-worked-out policies to protect their personnel in research contexts. (For example, Army Regulation 70-25 [PDF here.] rightly forbids use of military-legal penalties against personnel who decline to participate in research.) I don’t know much about how well the Army has done at applying those policies, but having such policies in place is a very good start. And if their policies are sound ones, then Wolpe isn’t working entirely in a vacuum; he’s not merely left to boldly go where no research ethicist has gone before.

~ by Nancy Walton on August 12, 2009.

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