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R. Alta Charo—An Ethicist and Bio-Optimist

headshot of R. Alta Charo
R. Alta Charo. Photo credit: Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin—Madison

“Impressive” would be an insufficient word to describe the biography of R. Alta Charo, the Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Charo’s contributions to government, education, science organizations, and other groups of policymakers, thinkers, and leaders are as varied as they are significant and influential. She has served in different leadership and advisory roles across private and public sectors, including two presidential administrations (Presidents Obama and Clinton). Charo has also worked on teams tackling vital issues such as biosecurity, embryonic research, gene therapy and genome editing, emerging infectious diseases, and equitable allocation of the COVID-19 vaccines.

In 2020, Charo was named a AAAS Fellow for her “influential work on bioethics and public policy, including outstanding scholarship incorporating ideas and research from philosophy, law, biology and the social and behavioral sciences.” That same year, she was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been a member of the National Academy of Medicine for over 10 years.

For Charo, these accolades provide an opportunity to connect with people from other fields. “It gives me a whole other world of people to collaborate with, and I find these multidisciplinary collaborations so much more fun and satisfying than narrowcast things with just people who are in my own discipline,” she notes. “They open your eyes, force you to learn another lingo and other topics, but mostly they force you to really learn how other disciplines approach a task and what they think is important.”

Of the AAAS recognition, she notes that it came as a complete surprise and was “an incredible honor.” She chuckles at the memory of how her oldest brother, a scientist, reacted with amusement at the news. “He said, ‘Congratulations on being named to another science society even though you’re not a scientist,’” she recalls.

As a non-scientist advising scientists, she says, “I enjoy my collaboration with scientists immensely — they are the most creative, forward-thinking people I know; most of them, simply put, are cool. Perhaps because they can sense my warm regard, most of them seem to view me as a partner in their effort to make discoveries and promote innovation, not only for the sake of the science alone, but also for the benefit of us all. To that end, collaborating on ethical guidelines for the conduct of science is not about hindering research but about finding the best way for it to flourish, with freedom of inquiry and public support.”

Given that she is someone to whom policymakers and other leaders often turn for advice and analysis, Charo has had to learn over the years to be mindful of time constraints and her ability to do a subject justice when choosing what to say yes to. After taking on almost anything that touched on life sciences, law and policy early in her career, Charo says she eventually learned to choose projects that involved topics she wanted to learn about or found personally compelling.

Usually, the topics she chooses are ones that generate heated debates. “I often found topics that were the most politically touchy to also be the most compelling,” Charo says. “So, a lot of the things having to do with embryos and embryonic stem cells or genome editing of humans or reproductive technologies... all of those really strike a nerve and I know a sensible person would run in the other direction but I kind of run toward that instead.”

When asked why, Charo explains, “Partly it’s because I want to spend my time on things that I hope will matter. I also feel that it’s really important that we try to find ways to change the parameters of the debate in order to find another possibility and to look for solutions that are not necessarily just a compromise so that nobody’s happy.”

For the 2022 AAAS Annual Meeting, Charo moderated a scientific session on the science, ethics and governance involved in using new models to study the human brain. “I was a member of a study committee at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It was tasked with looking at the science of neural organoids and chimeras. This session was a chance to share its findings and it featured speakers drawn from the committee, representing a variety of disciplinary areas.”

Charo believes that, for the most part, scientists and people in ethics and policy are basically trying to do the same thing — nurture emerging technologies in a way that maximizes their benefits and minimizes the risks of harm to humans, other living creatures, and the environment.

“I think we all share that goal and we need to look at each other from that perspective,” she says. “I’ve watched too many situations in which the scientists at the table are anxious because they fear that the social science people are there to try to stop them from doing something or slow them down, and the social science people look at the scientists and are anxious because they think the scientists are the unrestrained cowboys and cowgirls that run off and do whatever they want without much attention to anybody else. Neither image is really true, but that perception creates a tension that can interfere with people recognizing the common goal.”

According to Charo, good regulation and good ethical principles can promote good innovation by providing a safe path where you can move full speed without worrying about steering technology into a problematic or harmful-use territory.

“I think we need to look across these disciplinary groups with a more genuine sense of camaraderie,” she says. Social scientists and ethics and law experts can, through mutual respect and understanding, enhance innovation. Calling herself a bio-optimist, she says, “I think science is fun and exciting and scientific and technologic advances will improve the quality of life on this planet.”

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