Recently the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) convened its 16th public meeting to discuss neuroscience and related ethical issues. During that meeting, Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., and Vice Chair, James W. Wagner, Ph.D., held an impromptu question and answer session with a University of Pennsylvania Introduction to Bioethics class. Bioethics Commission Senior Advisor Jonathan Moreno, Ph.D., who teaches the class at Penn, had asked his students to watch the meeting webcast. He was Skyping with his class from the meeting in Washington during a meeting break when Gutmann and Wagner spontaneously joined Moreno at his computer and took part in the class’ conversation.
“The students were very surprised,” said the class graduate assistants Mary Mitchell and Matt Hoffarth. Gutmann is the president of the University of Pennsylvania. “They were a little intimidated but were excited and it was a great opportunity to illustrate many of the principles the students have encountered.”
The introductory course is composed of about 80 students ranging from freshman with a general interest in bioethics to seniors in Penn’s Health and Societies major. “Within the major, many of the students are interested in going into policy work so it was a great for them to see that process and talk to two leaders,” said Hoffarth.
Before the Skype call, the students had watched Session 4 of Meeting 16, “Ethics of Communication about Neuroscience Research by Scientists and Journalists.” Based on this discussion, the students asked Gutmann and Wagner about communicating science to the general public. “The conversation was really salient to the students because it was about education,” said Mitchell. “It was great that the [Commission] was talking about educating non-scientists. It helped the class feel like a part of the discussion.”
Moreno fielded questions about the content of the session and how it tied into what the class is studying. Both Hoffarth and Mitchell agreed that it was a wonderful teaching moment and one of their most memorable classes of the year.
An overarching theme throughout the Bioethics Commission’s reports has been the need for improvement in bioethics education for scientific and medical professionals. “Engaging directly with students and encouraging them to watch and discuss our public meetings is another way to stimulate interest in bioethics scholarship,” Commission Executive Director Lisa M. Lee, Ph.D., said.
In addition, the Bioethics Commission has developed and is providing free pedagogical materials based on the contemporary issues addressed by the Commission. The educational materials and archived webcasts of all past Commission meetings are available for free at Bioethics.gov.