Research before health care

Last week I blogged about the unique status that personal data have in science. Researchers are not interested in the persons behind the data and they have no intention of returning to them; an intention that most other personal data collectors have.

In an age of increasing integrity threats, it is uplifting that biobanks and research registers function like depersonalized scientific spaces where our data can orbit between research projects without tendency to return to us and disturb us.

Scientific aims disentangle us from our data.

Simultaneously with my blogging on this topic, Mats G. Hansson here at CRB wrote a letter to Nature on almost the same subject.

Nature recently reported on recommendations to US biobanks to inform participants about medically relevant incidental findings about their DNA. Mats G. Hansson warns that following such recommendations would be irresponsible.

Genetic risk information is highly complex. It is often unclear what the discovery of a particular genotype variant actually says about an individual’s disease risk. And even if increased disease risk can be proven, further research is needed to ascertain which preventive measures would be efficient.

Research must be allowed run ahead of attempts to provide (what looks like) health care services. Reporting incidental findings that have not been validated “could be putting the cart before the horse,” Hansson warns.

Making sure that biobank research runs ahead of (what looks like) health care services has one further function. It sustains the depersonalized status of personal data in research.

I believe this is important when data protection legislation is about to be sharpened to meet new perceived integrity threats. Research might be unduly affected by the new legislation, especially if the unique status of personal data in research is not clear.

When authorities share personal data, the aim typically is to be able to return to individuals with these data – perhaps in court. It is in the nature of scientific data sharing, however, that the individuals behind the data are uninteresting and are not included in the purpose of the data sharing.

Biobank infrastructure is very much about facilitating scientific data sharing. If these infrastructures are well-built, they can serve as reassuring examples in times where integrity threats are assumed to hide behind every corner.

People could then say: “There actually are depersonalized spaces where personal data can circulate safely without burdening the persons behind the data. They are called biobanks.”

Pär Segerdahl

We participate in debates - the Ethics Blog

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