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NIH’s Grady reviews complexity, impact of bioethics research

Oct. 24, 2019, 8:48 AM

Christine Grady, MSN, PhD, discussed her bioethics research at last week’s Flexner Discovery Lecture.
Christine Grady, MSN, PhD, discussed her bioethics research at last week’s Flexner Discovery Lecture. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Leigh MacMillan

Bioethics research is “one of the most theoretically complex forms of research,” Christine Grady, MSN, PhD, said at last week’s Flexner Discovery Lecture.

The complexity comes from the attempt of bioethics research to integrate two different kinds of inquiry that have traditionally been seen as separate: the “fact-value or is-ought distinction,” said Grady, chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center.

“Basically, the idea has been that you can’t come to conclusions about value — you can’t come to moral conclusions — from the way the world is, from premises that are based on facts,” she said.

Grady argued that empirical research in bioethics — facts about the way the world is — can be integrated with conceptual bioethics research.

Sharing an example from her research over the past 20 years, Grady described studies that have explored payments to research participants. Some of the studies have been empirical, focusing on questions such as: how common is payment, does payment influence response rates, are certain research areas more likely to pay, and so on. Other studies have been conceptual, focusing on models of payment and arguing for the “ethically best” model, she said.

“We’ve learned a lot, but there’s a ton more to learn about this tiny little topic…and there are a million other topics in bioethics,” Grady said.

“I do believe that bioethics research is an important way to integrate how things are in the world and how things ought to be, with the goal of making the world an ethically better place.”

Grady’s lecture was the Patricia Townsend Meador Lecture sponsored by the Vanderbilt Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society.

For a complete schedule of Flexner Discovery Lectures and archived video of previous lectures, go to

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