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Aaron Levine Explores a Proactive Approach to Bioethics and Public Engagement

AAAS Leshner Fellow Aaron Levine at the U.S. Capitol.
AAAS Leshner Fellow Aaron Levine at the U.S. Capitol during his 2019 orientation.
Photo credit: Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

In a “Bioethics and Public Policy” interview he conducted for the Future Directions podcast in October 2019, Aaron Levine described what he does as a bioethicist. At its core, it involves “thinking about ethical issues in the life sciences and healthcare.” As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, such issues have been frequently in the news related to triaging – or prioritizing – patients (and Levine recently published an op-ed in the Georgia Health News on the state’s COVID-19 data reporting issues). His focus typically is on research ethics, asking questions like, “With the conduct of stem cell research: what is appropriate, acceptable, good research, versus what might be more problematic research? How should policymakers oversee research? What impact do policies have on the conduct of science and the careers of scientists?”

Levine, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and part of the 2019-20 “human augmentation” cohort of AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellows, started out studying computational biology (using computer algorithms and models to understand biology), but after getting involved with the Human Genome Project, became much more interested in the ethical and policy questions associated with it. As Levine explains on the podcast, one goal of bioethics is often to support better policymaking – whether to evaluate an existing policy or inform future ones. However, Levine says, “One of the challenges of bioethics is that it tends to be reactionary. There is often a race to respond and to develop frameworks after the fact.”

Pursuing a more proactive approach, this past year Levine, as part of his role on an International Society for Cell and Gene Therapy task force, wrote a statement of concern about speculative commercial cell banking, a nascent industry that purports to help consumers protect themselves against possible future disease. These companies charge substantial fees, but their ability to follow through on their promises is not supported by evidence. Levine saw this as a chance to help prevent what happened with cell therapy clinics, which took advantage of the hype around stem cell therapy and marketed themselves directly to consumers, though they are not FDA-approved. This warning about cell banking was signed by ten other scientific societies and shared with relevant regulatory agencies. Several of the cell banking companies reached out to some of the societies afterward, so Levine believes it may have opened up some conversations with both industry and policymakers.

As part of his Leshner fellowship, Levine has also sought to be proactive about sharing his research more broadly. Last fall, he worked with his university press officer to write a press release about his paper on crowdfunding for CAR T-cell therapy, which can be prohibitively expensive even for patients enrolled in clinical trials, and did a podcast about it. During his fellowship year, Levine also planned to work on building a social media community for bioethicists, with the goal of supporting better communication and increasing and diversifying those interested in pursuing it as a career. However, he found this was going to take more time than he had, so instead he increased his own social media engagement, and plans to pursue his community-building idea once he has a team to do it with him. He may be able to use his position as a recently elected board member of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities toward some of these goals.

At his own university, Levine has had one-on-one conversations with a variety of other faculty who are engaged with the media and the public, to gather insights on how the institution views and supports public engagement. Overall, he found there is a sense that it is acceptable to do it, if it doesn’t get in the way of your research or it supports your research. Levine considers this “a pretty narrow model that excludes lot of valuable activities.” The university is developing a new strategic plan under its new president, so there may be some opportunities for input and change. He’d like to see an award for public engagement and perhaps a fellowship. However, he believes that departmental change is more likely in the near-term, including perhaps implementing stronger language about public engagement in their annual merit evaluation process, done in parallel to promotion and tenure.

For several semesters, Levine has taught an elective for graduate students called “The Engaged Scientist.” It’s an introduction to science communication and public engagement, and includes a variety of guest speakers and opportunities for students to participate in engagement activities themselves. This past fall, he added material from the Leshner fellowship’s orientation. Levine thinks the class may soon become an official course offering.

“The real benefit of the Leshner fellowship,” Levine says, “is in the long-term. As our careers develop, it pays dividends.” He notes that time management has been an ongoing challenge for him, and with the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools and workplaces, his plan for the year will certainly be affected. It helps, though, to think of the year as a springboard: he is getting parts of his public engagement plan off the ground, and other parts will come later. He intends to keep at it.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.