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The Challenges of Ethics Consulting in the Biotechnology Industry: Consulting Surveys

Main | Consulting Surveys | Survey Responses | Bibliography | Codes of Ethics

AAAS Survey of Biotechnology Companies

A survey of biotechnology companies was conducted in early 2005. The questions asked represent some of the main areas of dispute in the literature on ethics consulting for industry as well as some basic information about the extent, nature, and impact of such consulting. The 27-item survey, among other things, sought information on the issues that led companies to engage consultants, the professional backgrounds of the consultants they used, the types of advice sought, the use of the advice received and whether it was helpful, compensation practices, the prevalence of non-disclosure agreements, whether they had encountered problems of disputes with ethics consultants over their work, and whether the company had specific policies/guidelines in place for working with external consultants.

Sampling Methods

The primary purpose of the survey was to collect data to enable us to describe the landscape of ethics consulting for the biotechnology industry. Hence, we constructed a “convenience sample” that would likely generate a broad picture of such consulting. No generalizations beyond the survey’s responses can be made.

The survey was sent electronically to 125 persons representing 69 companies. One of the most challenging aspects of the sampling process was identifying to whom the survey should be sent at the companies. In many of the companies included in the sample, it was not straightforward regarding who was the most relevant person to respond to the questionnaire. As a result, in many cases the survey was sent to more than one individual at the company. They were also given the option of “taking the survey” over the telephone with a AAAS staff member, but none chose to do so.

Companies and potential respondents were identified using three methods. First, we did a Web search of companies listed in Plunkett’s Biotech and Genetics Industry Almanac, 2003-2004. Companies identified as having ethics committees, ethics consultants, or ethics programs were included in the sample. If during this search, individuals were identified as having a connection to a company’s ethics activities, they were included as potential respondents. Second, we used an “expert judge” process, whereby we solicited the names of companies and employees from people who had knowledge and expertise in the field of ethics, bioethics or biotechnology. And third, we compiled a list of key personnel at companies where contacts were still needed, focusing on directors of research, general counsels, scientific officers, heads of regulatory/clinical matters, and other similarly positioned people gleaned from company web sites.

AAAS Survey of Ethics Consultants

To complement the project’s survey of companies, we surveyed ethics consultants for the biotechnology industry in the spring and summer of 2005. This survey was not part of our original proposal, but was added after it became clear to us that such a survey could be done economically while enabling us to provide a fuller description of the landscape of ethics consulting. The 26-item survey sought information on the background and experience of the consultants; for whom they were consulting and how frequently; the types of ethical issues for which their advice was sought and the kinds of advice requested; the arrangements of their consulting relationship, including compensation and restrictions; how the company used their advice and how helpful the consultant thought it was; what disputes, if any, they encountered in their consulting for a company; and what they considered to be the most significant opportunities and pitfalls associated with their consulting experience.

The survey defined “ethics consulting” as “providing advice on ethical matters to a biotechnology company, including advice on specific ethical issues; on developing or implementing ethics policies or guidelines; or on reviewing existing company policies or procedures. This definition includes advice given as an individual consultant, as well as advice proffered as a member of a group established by a company, e.g., an ethics advisory board.”

The cover page of the survey noted that “individual responses will be treated as confidential… [and] will not be linked to individual respondents” in any materials prepared based on the survey data. The data reported on this website honor that promise of confidentiality.

Sampling Methods

The survey was sent electronically to 160 persons identified as potentially involved in ethics consulting for biotechnology companies. Such persons were identified by three methods: (1) a search of the web sites of bioethics centers or programs; (2) names acquired from the literature collected as part of the process of developing the project’s annotated bibliography; and (3) through networks related to applied ethics in which AAAS staff was involved. Recipients of the survey instrument were given the option of “taking the survey” over the telephone with a AAAS staff member, but none chose to do so.

Special thanks to Brent Garland and Kevin Alleman for their invaluable contributions to the development and conduct of the two surveys.