Team:Arizona State/Ethical Conditions


Ethical Considerations

Knowledge Sharing

This biosensor has the ability to change the lives of people in developing nations. The biosensor allows communities to detect the quality of the water supply. Knowing when the water is contaminated can stop people from consuming dirty water. The ethical dilemma arises when, after testing the water and determining that the supply is contaminated, the community cannot treat the water. Is it ethical to present information to a population that does not have the resources available to address the problem?

Sharing information about a contaminated water supply in a community can create problems. Addressing one side of the ethical dilemma, providing a community with the awareness of contaminated water and thus possible illness may be knowledge that the community does not want. Without the tools necessary to clean the water, notifying communities of a contaminated water source may seem futile. The awareness may be perceived by the community as a means of oppression: an external influence comes in to a village, diagnoses a problem, and then departs leaving the community members to address a problem that is not within their means to address. Water is an intrinsic need; humans depend on it. Coming into a community and then determining that water is contaminated can be perceived as a disruptive force. The community is told that the water is not good to consume, but with the inability to treat the water individuals are left using contaminated water. Problems may arise when sharing information with a community that is unable to solve the problem as the knowledge may be futile and can also act as a disruptive force.

Providing knowledge, however, can benefit a community in numerous ways. First and foremost, the knowledge of contaminated water provides a community with the power of making a decision. The community must become involved in the decision-making process, deciding which actions to take and how to expend accessible resources. Knowledge of contamination allows community members to take immediate steps. Such steps can be rudimentary measures, such as boiling or chlorination treatments. In each situation, using their own culture and morality, a community can decide what to do. Knowledge of contamination provides a community with the power of choice. The biosensor is preventative; it provides knowledge. This awareness allows action, and decision making, which is empowering. The argument that a community should remain in the darkness if action cannot be taken is an argument for passivity.

The ASU iGEM team has decided that the decision to share knowledge of a contaminated water source with a community that may not have the necessary resources is ethical. Awareness of the issue leads to action and decision-making, which leads to empowerment. The ASU iGEM team wants to empower communities in developing countries.

Policy Implications

One of the main focuses of the ASU iGEM team is being able to design effective methods for how our biosensor could be implemented. When designing our biosensor, it was important that other countries would be able to use our device with ease. If our project was able to be used in developing countries how would this affect their healthcare? What kinds of implications would our biosensor have on the communities where our biosensor was used? These are important policy and ethical implications that need to be discussed in order for our biosensor to be used effectively.

About $14 billion dollars a year are spent by Western countries that provide healthcare interventions to prevent and cure illness in developing countries (England 2008). The way that these governments distribute this money is via two different methods. The first method is called “horizontal aid” which seeks to distribute money to improve the overall healthcare system within a country (Newkirk 2008). The second method is “vertical aid” which also seeks to target specific diseases of interest (Newkirk 2008).The “horizontal aid” option incorporates the entire infrastructure of the country which should be improved. The drawback to implementing the ASU biosensor in tandem is that the entire implementation process could take much longer. When integrating this new technology, like a biosensor, with an already established healthcare system, developing countries will require that it meets the needs of their people. In some cases this requires expanding the country’s healthcare system to incorporate the new technology.

The technology being under control of the government runs the risk of the “dual-use dilemma”. This is where the government can abuse or misuse their control of the technology (POST 2009). An example of this would be if the government prevented which areas of the country would have access to the technology or to charge an exorbitant fee to use the technology. This would be a means to expand their control. Ultimately all of these issues kill the effectiveness of the technology as it prevents long-term deployment of the technology, meaning that any benefits from actually creating it may be short-lived.

In order for the ASU biosensor to be implemented correctly, our team would rely on non-governmental organizations (NGO). These kinds of organizations are put into place to work independently of the government. This would be a solution to eliminate corrupt government involvement. First, the biosensor can be vertically distributed by NGOs as this represents the most effective strategy to getting it to countries and regions throughout the world. Second, the aid approach must prioritize the needs of the recipients over the needs of the donor organizations. By giving priority to those who are in need, it would encourage local ownership of the device whereby the political and local attitudes will be for the technology versus against it (Newkirk 2008). This can be effective in overcoming generic narratives that state the technology is more of an imposition than an actual need. This would also allow for the technology to be deployed more effectively as it responds to the needs of the recipients and quickly adapts to them (Newkirk 2008).

Long term, the goal is to have the ASU biosensor become an effective tool for the developing country to use regularly. This would require government officials to create a sustainable, long-term infrastructure that would allow for an adequate prevention and care system. This approach would be most effective in both the long and short term because the NGOs can set up infrastructure in the intermediary to effectively combat the outbreak, while the government creates their regulations to implement our biosensor. The policy effort behind implementation has to include engagement with the local government whereby political goodwill will be generated for the technology versus against it. This is essential to not only preventing political backlash but also resolving any possible concerns regarding the “dual-use dilemma.”