March 2024

From Ethical Inquiry to Legislative Impact: The Bioethics-to-Policy Pipeline

A recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, led by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), delved into the “Promise and Pitfalls” of AI in healthcare, spotlighting the need for informed policymaking in this domain. Amid growth in the use of AI across several sectors, this moment underscores a critical juncture where bioethics intersects with health policy. Among those testifying at this hearing was Faculty Scholar Alum Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, a health policy expert who has written recently on the legal and ethical challenges associated with the deployment of AI tools in healthcare settings.

The Greenwall Foundation’s mission, vision, and strategic priorities are rooted in fostering the integration of bioethics research into meaningful policy action. Often, that starts with academic work interrogating the ethical implications of new technologies. Prof. Mello’s recent testimony demonstrated one path from scholarly exploration to the halls of Congress.

Prof. Mello and colleague Neel Guha have two recent publications on the risks that health professionals and institutions take on when they use AI tools in health care settings. In The New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year, the authors laid out a number of recommendations for health care organizations to mitigate these risks. Last Spring, in JAMA Health Forum, they articulated an optimism for the potential of AI tools for physicians in particular, while cautioning that their nascence means that “presently, physicians should use [large language models such as ChatGPT] only to supplement more traditional forms of information seeking.”

As Politico reporting reflects, these pieces highlight the lack of robust review processes within healthcare organizations and the necessity for adaptable regulation. And as the Sen. Wyden-led hearing revealed, there is a pressing need for Congress to foster a process that brings experts to the table to establish standards for evaluating healthcare AI applications.

Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) would seem to agree. The Congressman recently brought together a “Congressional AI in Society and for Democracy Roundtable,” aimed at “[exploring] how AI will impact the workforce and education,” as described by MeriTalk. Rep. Khanna told The Washington Post that the roundtable would “assemble a group of the leading minds in AI, technology, economics, [and] ethics,” including Greenwall Faculty Scholar Program Committee Member and Alum I. Glenn Cohen, JD, who posted that he was “honored to be one of the academics speaking at this great AI regulation summit.”

For his part, Prof. Cohen has published extensively on AI in health care, including “What Should ChatGPT Mean for Bioethics?” in The American Journal of Bioethics, a paper whose focus mirrored the questions Prof. Cohen spoke to in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Should You Use ChatGPT for Medical Advice? Prof. Cohen’s engagement with the roundtable reflects a broader acknowledgment of the value that academic research and bioethics considerations bring to the policymaking table, particularly in an era where technological advancements may well outpace legislative frameworks.

The bioethics-to-policy pipeline, however, is not limited to AI—nor to the pathway from journal to popular media to congressional engagement. Recognizing the indispensable role of bioethics in informing policy, The Greenwall Foundation launched the Bridging Bioethics Research & Policymaking initiative in 2022. These grants (all of which you can browse in our database) aim to directly translate ethics research into actionable policy insights, bridging the gap between academic exploration and on-the-ground change. Through this initiative, the Foundation has supported a variety of projects that address issues such as housing and aging, vaccine misinformation, genetic privacy, and more. Each project foregrounds a different means of impacting policymaking, and provides a broader learning opportunity to better understand how bioethics can impact policy moving forward.

The journey from bioethics research to policy impact is multifaceted, with many paths that lead from academic effort to influence in the policy debate. Through the dedicated work of scholars like Profs. Mello and Cohen, and initiatives like the Foundation’s Bridging Bioethics Research & Policymaking grants, bioethics continues to work to secure a seat at the policymaking table.