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Pomona College Senior Coauthors Study on Ethical Decision-Making in Bioscience Firms

“A survey of the ethical practices of bioscience companies,” published in the March issue of Nature Biotechnology, “suggests that although most firms feature ethics in their mission statement or code of conduct, fewer than half of the companies surveyed have made any formal efforts to assess how well these approaches are working,” according to authors David Finegold and Allison Moser.

Among the pair’s findings

  • When bioscience companies were asked to rank a series of different areas as possible sources of ethical issues, they most commonly cited employee misbehavior, followed by the conduct of clinical trials, legal compliance and marketing.
  • Many bioscience companies are devoting substantial attention to ethical issues. All companies report taking the first step of including ethics in their mission statements and codes of conduct, and most have gone further, incorporating ethics into their hiring process, employee evaluations and training.
  • However more than half of companies have made no effort to engage in ethics discussions with the firm's stakeholders or to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs. Only a third feature ethics when assessing corporate performance or conduct a social or ethics audit. Rather than incorporating ethics into their core strategic discussions and performance management systems, most firms focus on legal compliance as their top reason for focusing on ethical issues

The study was inspired by a series of high-profile events that have undermined public faith in the bioscience industry. The authors noted that, “The problem is most acute for the pharmaceutical industry, which as recently as 1997 had public approval ratings of 80%; today, it is viewed by a majority of Americans as doing ‘a bad job’ for consumers, with only 13% of Americans believing that the pharmaceutical industry is ‘generally honest and trustworthy.’”

The survey was sent to the 100 largest U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical firms along with a sampling of smaller organizations to try to document their ethics policies and practices. The results from the 29 companies that responded to the survey are presented in the article. The survey was designed to complement and put into context the results from detailed case studies of ethical decision-making in 13 leading bioscience firms published in BioIndustry Ethics.

A resident of La Jolla, Moser is a senior at Pomona College, majoring in biology. Her senior thesis focuses on measuring the changing stress and weight levels of first-year college students. To measure stress levels, she is analyzing the salivary levels of the hormone cortisol. Pomona College, one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges, is located in Claremont, CA, and is known for its student research opportunities. Moser began work on the ethics study at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in summer 2004 as part of its Research Experience for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation.

David Finegold, is a professor at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, the newest member of the Claremont, Colleges. He is a coauthor of the book BioIndustry Ethics (Elsevier, 2005), 13 case studies in ethical decision-making in bioscience companies. Prior to teaching at KGI, Finegold was an associate research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

Nature Biotechnology is a monthly journal covering the science and business of biotechnology. It publishes new concepts in technology/methodology of relevance to the biological, biomedical, agricultural and environmental sciences as well as covers the commercial, political, ethical, legal, and societal aspects of this research. The first function is fulfilled by the peer-reviewed research section.