There’s never been a political campaign yet in which politicians haven’t spent their time toggling between hyping their would-be personality cults (even Gray Davis, though it may seem to be personality-in-absentia), and piously declaring that the campaign is about issues not people.

It’s not quite the same with bioethics and its bioethicists (how many of us can name more then five ヨ or more than none?), but the spotlight has started to flip from the issue to the people. Last year Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Time outed some of them, revealing that one had been paid $100K to give “ethics” advice to a biotech company. She also quoted one of us as saying that bioethics had become part of the PR department for corporate biotech. Later that year BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, proved the point ヨ by renaming its chief lobbyist as “Vice-President of Bioethics,” a shrewd short-term PR move but another nail in the coffin for those of us looking for shrewd ethics ヨ or, long-term, good business sense ヨ from the trade group that claims to represent big biotech.

So what is “bioethics” anyway? It’s a strange animal – and it’s a new word, coined just over 30 years ago to signal a break with the old idea that MDs should be responsible for ethics in medical treatment. As one commentator wrote, it’s now “everybody’s ethics.” Your physician can’t make your decisions for you: it’s up to you (or, since this is America, it’s ultimately up to the courts). Now that 21st biotech has been added to medicine, the agenda is getting longer by the day.

But “everybody’s ethics” or not, “experts” soon got back into control of the discussion ヨ though they were not now usually physicians. Some were philosophers (what do you get when you cross a mafia don with a philosopher? An offer you can’t understand); some were lawyers; some were MDs or RNs who re-qualified by going to bioethics boot camp; and some just hung up a bioethics shingle. And thanks to the wisdom of BIO, at least one of them is a lobbyist to trade.

The bizarre fact in all this is that the bioethics PR scam is not going to work for long. It works for now, but it depends on people-out-there believing that bioethics is really a critical discipline – saying Yea or Nay to great moral questions like a 21st century version of the oracle at Delphi (note to Discovery Channel freaks: they have discovered that the oracles were controlled by gaseous emissions from seismic anomalies). That’s why before you start your research program or puff your new product you need bioethics due diligence. So you can stand up at the launch party and declare with your hand on your heart that “bioethics consultants” have said it’s OK, so here goes.

Of course, you can find a “bioethicist” who thinks just about anything, so getting bioethics sign-off is not quite like seeking an opinion from the IRS. Gregory Pence, well-published and highly intelligent bioethicist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, thinks cloning human babies is a great idea. Peter Singer, perhaps the most famous of them all, beguiles his students at Princeton with the depressing utilitarian logic that approves killing handicapped babies and using animals for sex. Arthur Caplan, a scientist-bioethicist who has become the darling of the biotech industry, announced to the United Nations’ Sixth Committee (its legal body) last year that if a clone moved in next door, you would have no need to worry; and as for mass-producing cloned embryos to experimental order, what’s the problem?

But for the moment the guy in the street still thinks that an OK from a bioethicist means you can swallow your qualms because Delphi has spoken. That will not last long ヨ but whoever thought press releases were for the long haul? Strategic PR?

So (as bioethicists!) we ask the question: is there any added value in bioethicists, or are they just another bunch of academics looking for something useful to do? It all depends what you want, and who they are. Bioethics has two basic functions.

One is to analyze ヨ assess what it is you are planning to do, smell out its ethics dimension and evaluate ethics problems you will need to address. Are you using human tissue? If so, what about the informed consent of the humans whose tissue it is? Some of these ethics issue relate directly to federal regulations. Some are more general factors in corporate ethics. Others have direct impact on ヨ yes ヨ your public relations strategy.

The second is to do what the public thinks bioethics does all the time ヨ and to assess your research, products, plans in light of the ethics norms that are taken for granted by vast sections of our culture and seen as just that ヨ norms. Ironically, if you find the right bioethicist, you can still find someone who will give you bioethics. Bioethics stands as the conscience of the culture, the frame of reference for law and policy and bioscience that reminds us of what it means to be human and that all good things come with a price tag ヨ there are things we must not do.

The irony is, of course, that ethics information is vital to your strategic business decisions. You can’t do marketing or indeed risk management without it. The best example of this is the disaster that hit Monsanto (and others) over so-called “genetically-modified foods” in Europe. They brushed aside “ethics” issues that were enormously important to Europeans, and they helped foment a peasants’ revolt from the Caucasus to the Atlantic: no “GM foods” (aka Frankenfoods) sold here.

Bioethics isn’t just for academics in their ivory towers. Neither is it about short-term PR advantage, as “bioethicists” are commissioned to come up with arguments to support whatever it is you want to do. But biotech needs ethics as surely as Enron did and Arthur Andersen (remember them?).