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What Happened Next? Diving deep into the ethics of artificial intelligence, genetic research, and more

Posted October 26, 2017
The founder of the Berman Institute of Bioethics and its inaugural Dracopoulos Director, Ruth Faden (left) stepped down from the role in 2016. Since then, Jeffrey Kahn (right) has led the institute. The founder of the Berman Institute of Bioethics and its inaugural Dracopoulos Director, Ruth Faden (left) stepped down from the role in 2016. Since then, Jeffrey Kahn (right) has led the institute.

When University trustee Andreas C. Dracopoulos endowed the Berman Institute's directorship in 2014, it was widely considered to be the first of its kind in the relatively young field of bioethics.

"It's my hope this will spur both the university and the Berman Institute to take bioethics at Johns Hopkins to the next level," Dracopoulos said in an announcement naming Ruth Faden, the founding director of the institute in 1995, the inaugural directorship recipient.

Has the Berman Institute of Bioethics met Dracopoulos' challenge? Rising visited with Faden, who held the directorship until 2016, and Bloomberg School of Public Health alumnus Jeffrey Kahn, who currently serves in the role, to find out.

Ruth Faden, Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics; inaugural Dracopoulos Director

What made the gift endowing this directorship so meaningful at the time it was given?

My goal when I founded the Berman Institute was to build a program that would last, a program that would become a permanent feature of Johns Hopkins. In order to accomplish that goal, it was critical to get the right foundation for the institute, and that required two things. The first was a physical home; we needed our own front door. That was our top priority in the last campaign, when we were fortunate to secure our building. Getting an endowed directorship was the second essential piece in cementing the underlying architecture of the institute. An endowed position for the leader of the Berman Institute is a symbolic instantiation of the significance of our enterprise but, more importantly, as a practical matter, it is essential to ensuring the institute's future. It absolutely guarantees that the university will be able to recruit, in perpetuity, the best possible talent to direct the institute, and it also means that all of us who serve in that position will have the resources to lead as we should.

How has the Berman Institute taken bioethics "to the next level" in the past few years, as Mr. Dracopoulos stated?

Almost immediately after the directorship endowment, I began working with the university leadership to explore what we call "practical ethics" at Hopkins. This is an initiative aimed at moving Hopkins and the Berman Institute beyond what we already do so well — the ethics of biomedical science, clinical practice, and public health policy — to also take on the ethics of other important fields and disciplines, and other enormously significant societal challenges. Practical ethics is the biggest possible umbrella; an area of inquiry that tackles real-world questions of ethics in every arena of intellectual and social life, from engineering and the environment to business and the economy, from international relations to human rights.

To take one concrete example, the Berman Institute's focus on ethics and global food policy is not and should not be confined to only a bioethics perspective on the issues. To really understand and advance challenges in global food ethics, we need to be thinking about the ethics of agriculture, the environment and agribusiness. That's exactly the question Andreas put to us in endowing this professorship: Why narrow your horizons? And because of Andreas' wonderful gift, I was freed to pursue that question and work with talented colleagues to help faculty across the university to begin to develop their own interests in practical ethics.

How is the Berman Institute different today from when the directorship was established?

In addition to enabling this very important exploration and nurturing of practical ethics at Johns Hopkins, the directorship's resources have enabled us to be even more creative and competitive in our scholarship and in seeking support from other sources for our work. We were, for example, able to launch a significant initiative funded by the Wellcome Trust studying ethics related to pregnancy and pathogens that I am leading. The project focused initially on the Zika virus but has since expanded to address a much larger set of issues having to do with ethics of emerging and re-emerging infections.

Another important project that focuses on infectious disease from a genetics perspective is our Center for Excellence in Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Research, led by Jeff Kahn and Gail Geller. Together, these and other projects are cementing our global leadership at the intersection of ethics and infectious disease. The endowed directorship has helped us become instantiated in the minds of our colleagues as the go-to place for this kind of work.

Jeff Kahn, Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy; current Dracopoulos Director

What doors has the Dracopoulos Directorship opened for you during your first year as the institute's leader?

There are opportunities for the director to work across the entire university, but that means you have to get out and talk to people — and the endowed directorship allows for that time. For example, one of the first things I did as director is speak with the director of the Applied Physics Laboratory, Ralph Semmel. He connected me with Ashley Llorens, who directs APL's Intelligent Systems Center, where the thought-controlled robotic arm was developed. That started a conversation about the work they're doing in artificial intelligence. Now, two groups of our Berman colleagues are working with APL scientists on projects to investigate various aspects of ethics as they relate to artificial intelligence, which is a big topic of conversation right now.

What are the initiatives you're working on that you're most excited about?

Having a more prominent public face for the Berman Institute, and for the bioethics field. I'm on WYPR [Baltimore's NPR affiliate] with Tom Hall every month, talking about the work we're doing, to get it out to a broader audience. We're also hiring a new staff member to help us place more op-eds, blog posts, produce YouTube videos and expand our social media to reach more people, and we're in the process of redesigning our website and overall approach to social media. This increased communication will help the public better understand what we do, but also policymakers. We'll be increasing our outreach to congressional offices and the federal executive branch so they're more educated about us and the topics we work on — we want to be on their list of trusted experts as far as bioethics is concerned.

Dr. Faden mentioned you're involved with a new grant-funded center at the institute. Can you share more about that?

It's a newly funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center of Excellence in Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Research of genetics and genomics. Ours is designed to be anticipatory, rather than reactionary, in providing guidance on ethics and policy issues arising in the areas of genomics and infectious disease. Hopkins has numerous experts in relevant areas across both the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the School of Medicine, as well as our expertise in bioethics at the Berman Institute. Housing a center for excellence has provided a platform for all those scholars to work together on a number of projects.

For example: We now know that the genetic makeup of HIV in an individual is unique, like a fingerprint, because the viral and the host's DNA intersect. That might soon be used to track the direction — who infected whom? That knowledge has implications for blame, stigma, even criminality — raising numerous ethical and policy issues. Those are the kinds of issues we can address in this center and with this NIH funding.

To learn more about the Berman Institute of Bioethics or to make a gift, please contact Andrea Matz, associate director of development.