The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Member Spotlight: James Wagner

james-wagner_portraitPresident Obama appointed the nineteenth President of Emory University, James W. Wagner, Ph.D., to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) in November 2009. Wagner serves as Vice Chair on the Bioethics Commission.

Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s degree in clinical engineering and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering. Wagner said he became an engineer because it is a creative discipline. “From shingles on a roof to the creation of the iPhone, they all were created by someone. They aren’t natural, but a vision of their creator,” he said. Wagner initially wondered how his engineering background would help a bioethics commission, but he now believes it serves a valuable role.

Prior to Emory, Wagner developed quality-assurance methods at the FDA and performed failure analyses on medical devices. Wagner says he had to rely on basic ethical principles as he encountered quality assurance challenges like whether a less expensive and thus more available cardiac pacemaker could be produced if it did not have to go through time consuming and costly steps such as qualifying the electronic components and batteries for medical use.

“Engineers understand that risk management is different from risk elimination and so [engineers] engage in the same kinds of decision processes that challenge the Bioethics Commission,” Wagner said. He pointed to one example of this that can be seen in New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, the Bioethics Commission’s first project. President Obama asked his bioethics advisors to “develop recommendations about any actions the Federal government should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks.”

Wagner approached this charge with an engineering mindset, one that aims to reduce risk, but not stymie development. In particular he feels the principle of responsible stewardship is one of the most important principles that the Bioethics Commission identified and applied as it considered the developing field of synthetic biology.

As defined in the Bioethics Commission’s report, responsible stewardship is “a shared obligation among members of the domestic and global communities to act in ways that demonstrate concern for those who are not in the position to represent themselves (e.g., children and future generations). A responsible process will continue to assess safety and security as technologies develop and diffuse into public and private sectors.” Wagner said that the Bioethics Commission Members realize that with all new technologies there will be risks that cannot be eliminated, and it is the role of the Bioethics Commission to offer the Administration advice on how to manage those risks for the public.

“I’ve learned a great deal,” Wagner said of his time with the Bioethics Commission. “This is a group committed to helping society navigate its way through these emerging technologies, while protecting everyone; this has truly been a satisfying experience.”

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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