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Research and Activities



The Ethics and Social Implications of Active Genetics

Recent breakthroughs in gene editing — including gene drive technology — make it clear there are both powerful opportunities to alter genes for the common good and substantial ethical considerations that must be addressed. As gene drives graduate from experimentation to practical application, the expertise developed both at UC San Diego and beyond will be crucial in considering the opportunities and risks of transformational impact on a local, and well as global, scale.

In collaboration with the UC San Diego Tata Institute for Genetics and Society, the Institute for Practical Ethics supports a research program on the ethics of active genetics. This program includes the formation of the Ethics of Active Genetics Working Group, workshops on the ethics of active genetics, and the training of scientists.

The inaugural Ethics and Social Implications of Gene Drive Conference was held May 9-10, 2019.

The Ethics and Social Implications of Data Science

Information on all members of society now exists in various databases, and the ability to analyze enormous amounts of data is reshaping how governments, businesses and other entities made decisions. However, ethical standards for data designed for a pre-computer age are of limited utility, and the use of “big data” raises a host of social and ethical questions.

In conjunction with the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute and School of Social Sciences, the Institute for Practical Ethics sponsors a workshop addressing the rise of big data: the combination of the production and retrieval of large amounts of digital information with powerful algorithms on a hardware platform of ever-increasing capacity. It gathers social and computer scientists, activists and practitioners interested in the ethics and policy implications of this technological revolution.

The industry leaders survey the achievements, promises and technical challenges of big data, its effects on social inequalities and democracy, the cultural shift it is generating in the way we value knowledge, create art and conduct science, and the ways we may control it and influence its progress.

The inaugural workshop was held Feb.15-16, 2019.

The Ethics and Social Implications of the Environment

Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and more all raise many ethical, philosophical and social questions. What does justice demand in the face of climate change? What do we value in biodiversity? How can we better achieve environmental justice?

New technology and knowledge allow novel possibilities for dealing with some of these problems, from geoengineering the climate to using genetic engineering in conservation. The Institute for Practical Ethics is committed to supporting work tackling these problems. Examples include talks by Andrew Light on climate policy (PDF) and Emma Marris on the future of conservation.

Additionally, affiliated researchers are also actively pursuing work in these areas, including postdoctoral scholar Daniel Callies’ book “Climate Engineering: A Normative Perspective.”

Additional Research Focus

Science and Democracy

The Science and Democracy project at the Institute for Practical Ethics brought scholars together to research both how science is done, and how it ought to be done, in a democracy. Topics include but are not limited to:

  • Freedom of inquiry and its limits,
  • Justifications for the public funding of science,
  • Ethics of science and technology policy,
  • Institutions for citizen participation,
  • Public trust in science and 
  • Misinformation about science.

Two faculty affiliated with the institute are leaders in this discussion: Zeynep Pamuk, assistant professor in the UC San Diego Department of Political Science who won the Brian Barry Prize in Political Science for her essay “Justifying Public Funding for Science,” and S. Andrew Schroeder, an associate professor in philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. He works on science and democracy, a topic for which he won a prestigious ACLS grant to serve as an Institute for Practical Ethics Visiting Scholar for the 2020 – 2021 academic year.

Research Seed Grants

Specifically for internal UC San Diego faculty or researchers, the Institute for Practical supported projects that are distinct from other faculty grants. Interdisciplinary projects were preferred. Examples of topical areas include social or ethical issues arising in big data and engineering, climate change, genetic engineering, clinical trials in medicine, biodiversity, nudging in healthcare and empirical investigations into ethics.


Seed Grants 2019-2020

Medical Neutrality and Compromised Ethics in Kashmir
Faculty: Saiba Varma, Department of Anthropology

International humanitarian norms intended to protect clinics, medical professionals, the delivery of medicine and other forms of lifesaving humanitarian assistance from attack have been systematically and routinely violated in conflict settings globally. In Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, medical infrastructures have been deliberately targeted and bombed. While instances of the violations of bioethics and humanitarian norms of neutrality and impartiality in contexts of violence or conflict are well documented, less understood are the long-term effects of these violations on health systems, medical providers and patients. This ethnographic project focuses on how conditions of violence and instability in Indian-controlled Kashmir affect, undermine or reconfigure medical and humanitarian ethics, including norms of biomedical neutrality and impartiality, legal and normative ideas of the clinic as a ‘safe’ or protected space in war, and notions of beneficence or medical providers as benevolent, caring and committed to doing no harm.

Genetically Modified Gods
Faculty: Pinar Yolads, Department of Visual Arts

Genetically Modified Gods is an artistic research project on the emerging notion of designer genes, and humans who possess these genes. Through the use of narrative storytelling and new media methodologies, a creative universe for nine characters — each of which focuses on specific desired traits, such as beauty, intelligence, athletic prowess and so on — is introduced. Three developments in techno-science — fast sequencing of DNA, precise gene-cutting via CRISPR and larger availability of personal genomics products through commercial services like 23andMe — make designer genes, and eventually designer babies, more plausible than mere figment of imagination. The artistic series addresses the age-old question "if it can be done, should it be done?" through multi-modal channels and the playfulness that only narrative storytelling could offer. In representing these genetically engineered humans, the project seeks a new visual language that is bio-critical, techno-feminist and disruptive, compared to what is found in mainstream superhero stories. This project intends to stir the imaginations of the researchers, thinkers, and scientists alike.

Perspectives on Health Big Data Privacy Among Members of an Indigenous Community at a Large STEM Institution
Faculty: Cinnamon Bloss, associate professor Department of Family Medicine and Public Health; Burgundy Fletcher, graduate student Department of Ethnic Studies and UC San Diego American Indian Graduate Student Association chair; and Lucila Ohno-Machado, professor Department of Medicine

Privacy-related concerns frequently emerge as a barrier to the equitable access of biomedical research and its associated benefits to Indigenous communities. To the extent that under-representation in big data research persists for members of Indigenous communities, these communities will not reap its benefits and this situation will serve to maintain or exacerbate existing health disparities. The Intertribal Resource Center, the Native American Student Alliance and the American Indian Graduate Student Association provide space and resources for these students with the goal of creating an inclusive community of belonging and support. This study will conduct interviews and focus groups with student and faculty members of these organizations in order to understand their views and experiences with health big data, both individually and as members of larger Indigenous communities here and elsewhere.


Seed Grants 2018-2019

AI and the Future of Society
Faculty: Ulrike Schaede (Professor, School of Global Policy & Strategy)

The Japan Forum for Innovation and Technology (JFIT) is launching a research program on “The Digitalization Disruption and the Future of Society”, with the goal to analyze the ongoing changes associated with AI, IOT, industry 4.0 and society 5.0, with a focus on the social science perspective and the global comparison. On April 27-28, 2018, JFIT will hold a conference to bring together scholars and practitioners from the U.S., Germany, and Japan, to discuss the role of global social science research in the ongoing discourse on the future of regulation and cybersecurity, autonomous systems, ethics (in all its dimensions: bioethics, neuroethics, business ethics, etc.), business, work, and society. Based on that first meeting, JFIT will structure an ongoing research project around these issues, in connection with collaborators in Asia and Europe.

Ethical and Faith Perceptions of Interventions That Have Public Health Implications in Less Developed Countries
Faculty: Wael Al-Delaimy (Professor, Family Medicine and Public Health)

Ethically challenging interventions might have far reaching public health impact and are perceived differently according to the social and religious beliefs of communities in less developed countries.  Ethical values driven from religious beliefs and faiths in the East can offer valuable input and guidance in dealing with such interventions in the context of the interest of public health. Scholars representative of such cultures and beliefs need to be engaged and involved in the process. This grant will support a symposium on campus to discuss the above based on the experience of Islam as one of the major Eastern faiths and building on Jordan’s NIH Fogarty Training Program in Responsible Conduct of Research that is led by Dr. Al-Delaimy. The event will be focused on public health and responsible conduct of research training in less developed countries to address scientific innovation and ethical and religious implications to society. The symposium will shed light on molecular science, social science and population science and how the ethical and societal beliefs in different societies globally might shape these technological advancements when they have public health impact. The discussion will focus on harm vs benefit and how might this guide implementation of collaborations between scientists from predominately Western Christian background with scientists and faith and community leaders from different faiths, in this case Islam, but can be extended to other Eastern Faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Ethics and Policy Implications of Algorithms and Big Data
Faculty: Akos Rona-Tas (Professor, Department of Sociology)

The workshop will address the rise of Big Data; the combination of the production and retrieval of large amounts of digital information with powerful algorithms on a hardware platform of ever-increasing capacity. It will gather social and computer scientists, activists, and practitioners interested in the ethics and policy implications of this technological revolution. We will survey the achievements, promises and technical challenges of Big Data, its effects on social inequalities and democracy, the cultural shift it is generating in the way we value knowledge, create art and conduct science, and the ways we may control it and influence its progress.

Ethics, Theatre, and Science: Cross‐Disciplinary Fostering of Ethics and Science Conversations
Faculty: Michael Kalichman (Director, Research Ethics Program) and Emily Roxworthy (Professor, Department of Theatre and Dance)

The goal of this project is to use staged readings of academic dramas to facilitate conversations about ethics and scholarly research. The underlying premise is that a culture of ethics is one in which members of the scientific community recognize and discuss the ethical dimensions of the practice and application of science. Public performances of two plays will be staged in the 2018 Winter and Spring quarters at UC San Diego. One of the two plays is titled “Purely Academic,” written by David Abramson, an Australian computer scientist. The second is the play “Margin of Error,” written by a San Diego-based professional playwright, Will Cooper of the Roustabouts Theatre Company. Two staged readings by alumni and faculty from the UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance are planned for Abramson’s play. A single staged reading is being scheduled for Cooper’s play with the original cast. The play readings will include guided conversations between the actors and the audience about what they have seen, what it means, whether it is consistent with their experience, how best to address similar problems when they occur, and how to protect against such problems in the first place. The Principal Investigators, Drs. Roxworthy and Kalichman propose to assess interest, engagement, and the value of having scientists and other academics engage in this approach, and then collaborate in writing about the experience from their perspectives as scholars focused, respectively, on the performance theory of political theatre and effective pedagogy for the teaching of ethics in science.

Evidence and Scientific Method: Rigor versus Use

Faculty: Nancy Cartwright (Distinguished Professor, Department of Philosophy)

IPE will sponsor an interdisciplinary workshop winter term 2019 exploring the trade-off between epistemic values and use values and among varying use values themselves in the construction of scientific research in the human sciences, broadly conceived (including economic, social, medical and public health sciences). For example, educators need to know whether an intervention (like the inverted classroom or the ABRA on-line literacy program) will produce the outcomes they hope for in their school with their students, implemented in the way and under the interpretation that their school would implement it, which they may not know how to pinpoint.  An RCT-based unbiased estimate of the outcomes of a probably not-so-similar intervention in some school elsewhere or a meta-analytic average of such estimates is hard for them to make use of.  Participants to include: from UCSD, Nancy Cartwright, Philosophy; Amanda Datnow, Education Studies; Tarik Benmarhnia, Family Medicine & Public Health; from elsewhere, John Douard, public defender, New Jersey & Rutgers Univ.; Angus Deaton, economist, USC & Princeton.

Examining Views of Geneticists and Clinicians on Racial Classification and Genetic Ancestry
Faculty: Amy Non (Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology), Justin Meyer (Assistant Professor, Division of Biological Sciences), Angela Booker (Associate Professor, Department of Communication)

The increasing availability of genetic ancestry information is changing the way biomedical researchers design treatment plans and conduct genetics research. Despite scientific consensus that there is no biological basis to race, physicians often use racial information in their practice while geneticists continue to use racial categories as biologically meaningful ways to design their studies and analyze their data. The proposed study is an analysis of the use of ancestry-related genetic information by clinicians and geneticists. Specifically, we are interested in the ways in which access to genetic ancestry and phenotypic data (e.g. photographs) can influence how biomedical researchers treat patients, design their studies, and classify others into racial/ethnic groups for research or treatment purposes. During interviews with clinicians, we will show mock clinical files with patient photographs, and ask how they would diagnose and design a treatment plan for each patient. Then we will show the mock genetic ancestry data for each patient, and ask if their diagnosis or treatment plan would change after viewing this data. And finally, we will ask each clinician how they would classify the patients into racial categories, how they define race personally and in their professional practice, and how racial stereotypes come into play in their work. We will ask similar questions of genetics researchers, as well as questions about study design and how they would use genetic ancestry information in data analysis and interpretation. In addition to generating empirical data for ethicists to consider in use of genetic ancestry data, these findings will build upon our ongoing anthropological investigations of the role of genetic ancestry in racial health disparities.

Moral Responsibility Working Group and Conference
Faculty: Dana Nelkin (Professor, Department of Philosophy) and Manuel Vargas (Professor, Department of Philosophy)

The IPE grant provides support for an inaugural conference of the UCSD Moral Responsibility Working Group. The UCSD Moral Responsibility Working Group aims to build a consortium that spurs interdisciplinary research on the theoretical foundations and practical dimensions of blame and culpability, as well as the associated legal, psychological, and social practices. The inaugural conference will focus on the moral significance of “nudges,” or efforts to shape the choice architecture of individuals in pro-social ways, for our understanding of people’s culpability for their choices. Nudges have received a great deal of attention in behavioral economics and public policy circles. However, the implications of
nudges for our understanding of the praiseworthiness and blameworthiness of individual agents acting under nudges has received virtually no systematic attention. This conference will advance our understanding of the moral and political significance of choices under nudging.

Probabilistic Moral Judgments in Action: Decisions in Wartime and Driving
Faculty: Dana Nelkin (Professor, Department of Philosophy), Samuel Rickless (Professor, Department of Philosophy), and Nicholas Christenfeld (Professor, Department of Psychology)

Moral philosophers are engaged in the challenging project of identifying the true ethical principles that capture how human beings are obligated and permitted to act. Is it permissible to kill one person in order to save five others? Is it permissible to act in a way that harms innocents as a foreseen but unintended byproduct of action that brings about a good outcome?  Is it permissible to program cars to minimize the number of persons killed in an accident?  The right answers to these questions are needed to know how we should act. Meanwhile, many psychologists are exploring what ethical principles people actually use when making morally charged decisions. Our project brings these two kinds of inquiries together in a systematic and rigorous way.

 In particular we have been investigating variations on the Doctrine of Double Effect, the thesis that it is harder to justify bringing about a harm as an intended means to an end than to justify bringing about a harm as a side-effect of pursuing the same end.  Most studies and thought-experiments that support moral principles, whether justificatory or explanatory, assume perfect knowledge of the consequences of one’s conduct.  In ordinary situations, however, people possess at best a probabilistic understanding of outcomes.  So it is probabilistic moral principles that are needed to provide moral guidance. We thus propose to study precisely what sorts of principles of this probabilistic kind to which people are actually committed.  Our project has three main parts.  The first involves constructing a model of human probabilistic moral reasoning.  The second rests on investigating whether such a model can be justified. The third includes the application of our findings to self-driving car policy, where prior empirical study has not included probabilistic assumptions.

Where Is Uncertainty in Data Science?
Faculty: Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra (Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology)

In this project, I will study the role of uncertainty in data science and artificial intelligence. My research has two objectives: first, by collecting interviews with computer scientists and relevant discussions from the specialized literature, I aim to identify the distinct ‘cultures of uncertainty’ that characterize research in data science and artificial intelligence. For example, the project will look into how data scientists think about the nature, location, and role of uncertainty in their research and in the evolution of their profession. Second, by analyzing these distinct 'cultures of uncertainty', I will develop a taxonomy of uncertainties that may be helpful in communicating developments and innovations while being aware of the practical, ethical, and epistemic  limitations of machine learning and artificial intelligence