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Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME)

New research project: does the expectation of finding practical benefits erode the notion of trustworthiness, when doing research?

The Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine is glad to announce a new research projet funded by the Messerli Foundation. This project will be carried out by Dr. Matthias Eggel (PhD candidate at the IBME). 

Better understanding the value-conflict between research and society in general and CRISR/CAS9 genome editing, specifically

Basic research strives to generate knowledge without having practical benefit in mind. In the eyes of the public, this challenges the purpose of research: if practical applications are not the primary goal of research, what is the point of even doing research? Furthermore, the legislation (Harm-Benefit-Analysis (HBA)) demands practical benefit, which leads researchers to sometimes speculate about unrealistic and unlikely potential practical benefits of their research. This in turn generates expectations in the public that necessarily and repeatedly have to be frustrated, since practical benefit is not within the scope of basic research, thereby eroding the trustworthiness of science.

This project, funded by the Messerli Foundation, aims to look at whether the current model for the justification of basic research on animal – through its practical benefit (HBA) – will lead to a loss of trustworthiness.

The goal of the first part of the project is the conceptualization of „benefit“ and “justifying benefit” (a benefit that justifies the use of animals in experiments). Moreover, the relation between practical benefit (e.g. cancer drug, disease treatment) and non-practical benefit (e.g. knowledge) in the HBA will be investigated, together with its consequences for basic research.

In the second part of the project, empirical social studies (focus group studies, case vignettes, questionnaires) will be carried out to investigate the benefit concept of science, the public and the HBA. It will be investigated what consequences potentially different concepts of “justifying benefit” have regarding the trustworthiness of science. Furthermore, it will be examined how these potentially different benefit concepts affect the opinions of different stakeholders towards the genome editing technique „CRISPR/CAS9“ - What kind of benefits justify what kind of CRISPR/CAS9 use, e.g chimera research for organ transplants, preimplantation gene editing of zygotes, genetic enhancement, genetic disease research or generation of genetically modified and transgenic non-human primates.

If the hypothesis, that the HBA will erode the trustworthiness of basic research, holds true, this would lead to a plethora of problems: First, the trustworthiness of basic research would continuously erode. This could cause a strong demand in society for science to finally meet its promises regarding practical benefits, making its justification even more difficult. And probably most importantly, it could jeopardize the value of knowledge and thus the legitimization of basic research as a whole in the long run. Therefore, the conceptualization of (non-)practical benefit and justifying benefit together with the analysis of the benefit concepts of different stakeholders is of great importance. This conceptualization could improve future evaluation of project proposals and should help us better understand the conflict of trust between basic research and society. Moreover, the empirical social studies should visualize opinions of different stakeholders regarding legitimate purpose and justifying benefits of basic research in general and of CRISPR/CAS9 genome editing specifically. Finally, it could increase the credibility of basic research and hence, its trustworthiness.

In cooperation with

Messerli Foundation 

Messerli Research Institute 

Supervised by

Prof. Nikola Biller-Andorno

Prof. Herwig Grimm

Dr. Anna Deplazes Zemp