What is the ideal background for a stem cell company CEO? Take our poll

I really appreciate how insightful the students are with whom I interact each year including undergrads, grads, and medical students.

One asked me the other day “What are the backgrounds of the CEOs of stem cell companies?”

I know some of the CEOs and their background, but the question got me thinking, what is the ideal background for a stem cell company CEO? (an no, I’m not talking about a CSO).

Please vote in my poll on this topic below!

2 thoughts on “What is the ideal background for a stem cell company CEO? Take our poll


  1. *Warning: long post*
    Hi Paul. I noticed that you have used a polling mechanism that is kind of on the ‘low budget’ side. I totally understand. I have only done polls on Facebook or in the past, on blogs using free polling myself. However, I think you have asked a very important question, and when I voted I was surprised at the current data (at the time of my vote).

    Informal or not, free or not, I think it is super important that if you keep this poll up, you are 100% certain that the polling program does not allow multiple votes by the same person, or more importantly (maybe) give the *appearance* of multiple votes by the same person (which I am guessing could happen if people share an IP address in their department or company or household). In addition to accuracy, this at least decreases the chance that there will either be:

    1) a weird result as the result of accidental or deliberate misdeeds. Wouldn’t it be a little bit too suspicious, and all-too-easy to describe as ironic any kind of outcome where Ph.D.’s in ethics were to win but where there was any allegation of illegitimate voting…by supposedly ethical people blah blah blah).
    or
    2) A poll that would make possible yet another a twitter storm about any cloud of people or “socks” who are busily promoting any agenda about who should or shouldn’t work as “CEO of a Stem Cell Company,” whatever THAT means.

    Even your passing commentary about either (1) or (2) would do damage that exceeds the intent you must have for this “informal passing poll” that raises quite obviously a polarizing issue without noting it as such.

    By the way there’s a sort of important problem in the poll where ethics is concerned. I bring it up for the scientist and patient and other non-ethics associated readers among us, and not because of the POLL but because of the underlying issue, which is interesting, I think.

    There aren’t many Ph.D.’s in ethics. They basically are not given, not in America anyway. It’s either philosophy or religion in which someone is trained, or now in some tiny number of cases, bioethics, if the word “ethics” is used to describe their professional training – which is what your poll is about.

    This shrinking group of people (including myself and, I think, Elliot) used to be, and perhaps still are, mainly trained in philosophy – including history of philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics – and then qualify in those, and then specialize, and are hired into academic posts on the grounds of their “AOS” but must be truly trained in the discipline. This is also true for people with a Ph.D. in religion like Leigh Turner (School of Religion & Social Ethics, USC), where to be credentialed in ethics, one would have to be trained in a set of theological areas such that one would call a Christian Ethicist (here I’m thinking of my Dad, who did bioethics but trained PhD in Theology @ Duke). That person is a theologian (or more recently “a Ph.D. in religious studies” or something like that) and it would be strange indeed to call them a Ph.D. in ethics because it isn’t like they take courses and exams only in ethics and its supporting and even entirely affiliated areas; they must master things so far from ethics that it is a disservice to call them PhDs in ethics).

    To put a fine point on it, calling someone a Ph.D. in ethics is the about as imprecise as saying that somebody is trained with a Ph.D. in Embryo-derived Stem Cells. I’d say it is fair to say that there are AT LEAST two VERY different animals for the purpose of your poll. And the more I think about it, the more important fact (apart from your poll – and not intended at all to belittle the poll) is (I think) that maybe it is time for stem cell scientists to know what kind of animal they are talking to, what literature they’re reading, and the difference between the goals. I think that a lot of the idiotic journalism about “unethical ethicists” (allegations made against all of the ethicists who’ve ever appeared in your blog) begins with a well-documented category mistake about being a scholar of a field and being a person who embodies traits studied by the scholar. Nobody would argue that a PhD in kinesiology is better, or more important, worse (“The Lazy Kinesiologist”) based on the relationship between area of study and lifestyle. Do people really get massacred in the literature for being athiest PhD’s in theology? Maybe by the people who run their schools. But when they do, the planet clamors to their defense. The scientists who regularly write comments or even articles about unethical ethicists, saying that the least a person who studies ethics can do is be a good person have clearly forgotten to follow the sociology and history of bioethics. I don’t have any problem naming a dozen bioethicists (but won’t) whose histories of criminal misconduct, marriage to current students, vicious mistreatment of students, etc. would make them prime candidates for such attacks (and sometimes do). There has been a proposal for a “code of ethics” for bioethicists, but the vast majority (as was pointed out by Gail Geller in a huge meeting of the ASBH) of people in the field did not express support for such a code when it was presented – and it has also been argued that such a code should be limited to protecting ethicists from precisely the category mistake I’m describing. If you train to be a priest, your profession is to live the priestly life. If you train to be a professor or scholar of ethics, your profession is to be a professor or scholar of ethics. Not to live the ethical life. If you dispute this, you’d better be ready to argue that people with MDs have a responsibility to be healthy inasmuch as they possibly can be, or else are impugned as MDs — so we’d need to be willing to embrace the validity of a derisive article, “The Fat Cardiologist” as an attack on that person’s credibility *as heart surgeon*.

    I don’t expect to convince a bunch of people that the above is correct unless you’ve already read this far…

    But if you have, I would also suggest the following. It is important for stem cell scientists and patients to know that people who work around the area of this blog aren’t all anywhere near “PhD in ethics.” Here are a few examples, starting with the most obvious:

    (A) a Ph.D. with a specialization in bioethics (and please keep in mind that only a tiny number of philosophers would ever give – and then only to a tiny number of people – credit to someone who is a specialist in bioethics ANYTHING like credit for being a specialist in Ethics. Bioethics is looked down upon by pretty much every philosophy department; for the two people who might be interested in this phenomenon, I summarize it in McGee G.: “Will bioethics take the life of philosophy?” Am J Bioethics 6(5) 2006),

    (B) A “bioethicist”, which, nebulous as it is, is now something (bioethics) that one can get a discrete Ph.D. in (at, e.g., Case Western or Hopkins), or often claims to have trained in when one has a combination of degrees like JD/MBA or MD/MBioethics or even just MD or just JD. I can name some of the most cited leading scholars who’d fit that profile. Which obviously matters since a person with an MD who is a bioethicist for Kaiser and works primarily on issues associated with novel therapies and might very well run a stem cell company wouldn’t fit anywhere on your chart.

    (C) Without intending it, you’ve excluded a whole heap of people that might be much more qualified than either people from (A) or (B), but fit nowhere on the list and who would be offended to be called bioethicists or ethicists or anything like it. This swath includes people who work in history, philosophy and/or sociology of science who do not call themselves ethicists and who shouldn’t be called that even though they may end up writing in the field and about its content, including genetics and stem cells (I’d include in that bunch Charles Bosk, ReneĆ© Fox, Chuck Rosenburg and others). If interested see defense of this position in Light D & me: “On the social embeddedness of bioethics” in DeVries et al, eds, Bioethics & Society (Prentice Hall); (and esp. as quoted in Cribb A, Michael M et al.: “Towards the applied: the construction of ethical positions in stem cell translational research” Medicine, Health Care & Philosophy 11:3 (2008) 351-361). Without meaning to name names, you’ve recently suggested interviewing someone who doesn’t work on stem cells at all but who is a qualified Ph.D. trained in HPS and who might very well be argued to be a super-credible CEO. And frankly, some of the most intelligent and creative people in this area — the ones I would call if I were searching for a CEO right now — are philosophers of biology who don’t teach in and were not trained in philosophy (really), people whose lives have been devoted to studying the meaning of cells in the wake of Dolly and Gearhart and Thomson and Yamanaka, many of whom really know regulations — see i.e., McGee G., Caplan A.: “What’s in the Dish?” Hastings Ctr Rpt 29:2 36, and Wolpe, P.R., McGee, G.: “Expert bioethics, public discourse, and the case of embryonic stem cells” in Holland S., Lebacqz K., Zoloth L., (Eds.) Beyond Cloning: Embryos, Ethics and Immortality –The Debate Over Human Embryonic Stem Cells, The MIT Press.

    (D) A Ph.D. in science who publishes in very important ways, and as their career interest, about stem cells and associated areas. Here I will refer you to an article including such a person, Mildred Cho, and an article among zillions she and others with science PhDs have produced where their ethics comes from their multidisciplinary knowledge derived from science and ethics: Cho M., McGee G., Magnus D.: “Lessons of the stem cell scandal,” Science 311:5761 (2006). (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/311/5761/614.full ) I mention this article only because if you look at the main authors (not me) knowledge set you cannot help but see the importance of science training and socio/historical understanding of science.

    It is also obviously important to note that there are about a dozen obviously different kinds of stem cell “companies” and the conflation, both deliberate and accidental, of these companies has resulted in at best mass-confusion in the media, and at worst, making it impossible for people to rise above whatever negative associations are almost always associated with inaccurate use of that term in the public (company=moving too fast, etc.).

    Thank you for your patience if you really read this whole thing and I hope it is of some real interest, even alongside a poll that is of course intended to be informal by definition.


  2. There are also continental differences in PhD understandings as some in Theology are considered professional rather than academic and in first tier UK institutions the DPHIL or PhD is the contribution the individual made to science and so you would never have a PHD in say ethics or theology per se although your supervisor and institutional affiliations would be from specific sectors.
    In theology based PhDs one can be a Bishop and registered with the UK parliament with selective professional or academic qualifications and endorsement by peers. This makes it sad when people use qualifications as a challenge to promote their ignorance and ask belligerently and without respect questions like where did you get your PhD etc.

    I personally find educational elitism that excludes or makes others small disgusting as many people who would be deserving of DPHIL or PhD qualifications just could not afford to get them due to financial or time cost opportunity. There are aslo people who are extremely intelligent but do not suit the mold needed to complete the PhD. I have also met those with the titles where I have wondered how they managed to pull it off. If it pleases someone to be addressed by their titles I am all for it as this is respect, I think in return that those who think they have arrived because of a title should not use this to add artificial power to a discussion. Their contribution needs to stand on its own merits.

    I do understand background is important for context but in many instances it is not relative but is used only as a political weapon to posture with and to beat others down. Do we really need this to engage in informative conversation. I think not. Those who are true intellects are equally open to consider the thoughts of the vetted academic and the curious public alike and in fact many of our Nobel Laureates support open access and discussion for and with the masses.

    To coin an old phrase”people don’t care how much you know until you show them how much you care” Just share with the public the papers discussion and be open with them about good and bad events.

    As Alexey said the cases need to be discussed. Autoimmune response is real even if it is rare. He had an excellent video where a child survived leukemia precisely because after a cell/ gene therapy the team knew what to expect and were able to save the child’s life is spite of a serious immune/protein reaction and the child was saved from leukemia through the therapy. If the immune response was not known, swept under the rug or put aside because ‘other’ trials said it was safe she would have died, on the other hand when people are experiencing life improving effects this cant be dismissed either.

    If owners of these companies cared about the patients they would do clinical trials and be regulations compliant. If they didn’t like the regulations they would be mindful that the patients are vulnerable and they would not use them as shields to spout their unscientific slogans but would instead fight their own battles and protect the patients from the strife and confusion.

    A Stem Cell company CEO could be any of the categories Paul suggests as long as they were supported by the expertise they do not possess….no one can do it all. I did wonder why the PhD/DPHIL and MD classification was missed.

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