IBE:Code of Ethics

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The following essays were written by undergraduate students for the IBE Bioethics Essay Competition. They provide compelling insights into both the value and challenges of developing a code of ethics for biological engineering, and challenge us to address one of the core responsibilities of our professional society. Below are some resources to consider as we develop ethical guidelines for biological engineers.

Tom Richard, Penn State University mailto:trichard@psu.edu

  • Synthetic Biology:

Synthetic Biology 2.0 Biosecurity Resolutions

  • Essays, Case Studies and Educational Resources

Online Ethics for Engineering and Science (an activity of the National Academy of Engineering)

Zachary Russ, University of Maryland

Winner, 2009 IBE Bioethics Essay Competition

Letters to the Editor

Journal of Biological Engineering 2009, 3:7 (8 May 2009)

Mapping the moral boundaries of biological engineering

Christina Matson, Mississippi State University

Winner, 2007 IBE Bioethics Essay Competition

IBE:Code of Ethics


I originally wrote the article below as a submission for the IBE student bioethics essay competition, and Dr. Jerry Gilbert encouraged me to submit it to the IBE magazine. He and I thought that it would be a good idea to post it here as well to allow for open discussion of the topic. I think that having a code of ethics for our society is very important and I hope that other IBE members will get behind the idea.

I will be checking the discussion periodically. I look forward to reading your comments and welcome any and all suggestions.

Christina Matson, Mississippi State University mailto:christina.matson@gmail.com

Developing a Code of Ethics for Biological Engineers: Why Do We Need a Code of Ethics?

As a member of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, I am constantly reminded that the engineering profession ought to be an ethical one. Every year, as new members are initiated, they take a solemn oath to uphold the principles of the Engineer's Code of Ethics. I believe strongly in these principles of integrity, honesty and public service. However, the traditional code of ethics as published by the National Society of Professional Engineers does not address the more complicated issues involved with biology and medicine. As a biological engineer, I wonder how these principles ought to be specifically applied to our discipline.

Our discipline is unique in that it stands at the crossroads of engineering, biological science, and medicine - three professions which each have their own distinct interpretations of what professional ethics ought to be. The Institute of Biological Engineers (IBE) has shown great sensitivity to the unique dilemmas that bioengineers face. Hosting the Student Bioethics Essay competition each year is a good way to raise awareness of these issues, but I feel that the ethics discussion should be taken one step further. Professional engineering societies such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Chemical Engineers all have their own codes of ethics, but IBE does not currently have one.

With all this in mind, I believe that a Biological Engineering Code of Ethics for IBE would be an important step towards establishing biological engineering as a discipline in its own right. I propose that the members of the Institute of Biological Engineers formulate a code of professional ethics for bioengineers. This code should address problems unique to the discipline while remaining broad enough to be applicable to biological engineers in all aspects of the profession.

Codes of Ethics from Other Disciplines

The codes of ethics of three disciplines closely related to biological engineering - chemical engineering, medicine, and molecular biology – will help define the essential aspects of biological engineering ethics. First of all, what is ethical behavior as defined by these codes? All the codes agree that professionals should be honest, practice only in their area of expertise, and carry out their duties to the best of their ability. The codes of ethics of the American Medical Association and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers both emphasize a responsibility to society and to other members of the profession. This is appropriate for these disciplines, as both professions directly affect people’s lives by the quality of their work. People’s lives depend on good medical treatment and safe, well-engineered products. Since unethical conduct on the part of a few engineers or doctors can influence public perception of these professions, engineers and doctors both have a responsibility to their peers as well as to society. The AMA and AICHE codes of ethics advise professionals to report to the appropriate authorities any member of the profession whom they suspect is acting unethically. The AMA code of ethics mentions another responsibility: the responsibility for continuing education. This is vital in the field of medicine, where a new innovation could mean the difference between a costly surgery and an inpatient treatment. Engineers are expected to be lifelong learners as well, but this is not part of engineering ethics codes.

In addition to these duties, the code of ethics of the American Society for Biochemistry and Microbiology adds another responsibility: that of the research scientist to those who he trains. This code states that “it is expected that…investigators will provide appropriate help in advancing the careers of the trainees…” This highlights the apprenticeship aspect of research science. Science is one of the few professions today which follows the traditional master-apprentice model. Graduate and postgraduate students depend on their advisors to train and establish them as legitimate scientists. Given this sometimes unequal relationship, the code of ethics must demand that trainees be given the help they need to get their start.

Another unique aspect of the ASBM code of ethics is the obligation to publish results obtained from publicly-funded research. This may seem unusual until one realizes that the job of a scientist is to expand knowledge in his or her field. By keeping results to himself, a scientist would be hindering progress and working against the purpose of the profession, not to mention cheating the organization that funded him. This obligation does not have a parallel for engineers in industry, where trade secrets are necessary to keep the business profitable. However, engineers in academia are bound by many of the same requirements as scientists – including the requirement to publish.

Biological Engineering Ethics: What Does an Ethical Bioengineer Do?

What about biological engineering? What kinds of behaviors and practices does the ethical bioengineer engage in? As evidenced by the diversity of membership in IBE, our discipline encompasses the traditional engineering fields as well as approaches more similar to pure science research. A code of ethics for biological engineering should define the specifics of all three responsibilities outlined above: responsibility to patients, customers and society; responsibility to the profession; and responsibility as an educator and student.

The code should draw on medical ethics to create guidelines for those who work in the medical industry. When working with patients in a clinical setting, the ethical bioengineer will respect and uphold a patient’s rights, just as a doctor does. When designing drugs or medical devices, the ethical bioengineer will keep the health and safety of the patient paramount. When patient safety conflicts with an employer’s requirements, the bioengineer is honor-bound to inform his or her employer and take steps to safeguard the patient.

A code of ethics for biological engineering should also include a commitment to stewardship of the environment. Biological engineers, especially in the environmental area, are increasingly turning towards sustainable design and renewable energy sources. More so than anyone, the ethical bioengineer realizes the impact that environmental damage has on his or her work and society as a whole. Ethical bioengineers will actively work to minimize the environmental impact of their designs and use renewable resources wherever possible.

The final responsibility, the responsibility to educate and learn, is vital to the growth of bioengineering. Even bioengineers not employed in academia can take part in education to some extent, whether it be mentoring junior engineers or simply raising public awareness of the discipline. The ethical bioengineer recognizes that he or she is a pioneer in a relatively new discipline, and that he or she has a duty to smooth the way for those who come after him. Likewise, the ethical bioengineer realizes that he or she ought to be a perpetual student. To practice effectively, he or she must stay current with the innovations in the field.


I would like to see student and professional members of IBE work together to develop a mature, well-defined code of ethics for biological engineers. This would provide valuable guidance to our members and greatly improve the perception of biological engineering as an engineering discipline in its own right. The wiki format is ideal for this purpose because it provides an environment where all members can freely and openly participate in the dialogue and all voices can be heard. I hope that other members of the Institute of Biological Engineering will examine the codes of ethics from other disciplines and add their ideas to those briefly outlined here. If the discussion is productive, perhaps IBE Executive Committee will consider forming a special committee dedicated to developing a code of ethics. I am looking forward to reading all of your comments and suggestions!

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