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The Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Research Program at the National Human Genome Research Institute
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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 7.3 (1997) 291-298

Bioethics Inside the Beltway

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Organizers of the Human Genome Project (HGP) understood from the beginning that the scientific activities of mapping and sequencing the human genome would raise ethical, legal, and social issues that would require careful attention by scientists, health care professionals, government officials, and the public. The establishment of the ELSI (ethical, legal, and social implications) programs at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the Department of Energy (DOE) was thought to be vital to the success of the HGP in the United States. It also provided a novel approach to the simultaneous study of ethical, legal, and social issues and basic scientific issues. Eric Juengst, the first director of the ELSI program, described its origins in a previous issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (Juengst 1991). Now in its seventh year, the ELSI program has accomplished much. This article summarizes the evolution and goals of the ELSI program at NHGRI, outlines the program's current research priorities with examples of activities within each priority area, and provides a look to the future, including the initiation of a strategic planning process.

Evolution and Goals of the ELSI Research Program

The HGP's "genomic" goals are unique: to map and sequence the entire human genome -- some 3 billion base pairs that make up approximately 80-100,000 genes -- and the genomes of related model organisms by the year 2005. This goal was particularly ambitious since, when it was proposed, the technologies for mapping and sequencing had yet to be developed. When the HGP was first established, its organizers also elaborated a set of ELSI goals, which they saw as vital to the success of the genome project. The original ELSI goals were: (1) to anticipate and address the implications of the HGP for individuals and society and (2) to examine the ELSI consequences of mapping and sequencing the human genome in order to stimulate public discussion. To meet these goals, the NHGRI created its ELSI research program in 1990. Along with mapping, sequencing, and mammalian genetics, ELSI was one of four original branches in the NHGRI Division of Extramural Research that funded research in those areas. Although the individual "branches" no longer exist, the mechanisms for funding research remain much the same. While the overall goals of the program have not changed, the specific ways of achieving the goals have continued to evolve. The importance of the ELSI program lies not in the collection of a full set of data that will be valuable in and of itself, but in the value of using and interpreting this new set of information.

Early on, the NHGRI described a set of somewhat more specific goals: (1) to develop a program to help understand the ethical, legal, and social implications of the human genome project and (2) to identify and define the major issues of concern and develop policy options to address them. These more specific goals have been largely met. As the most recent biennial NHGRI Progress Report notes, "a robust ELSI research and education program has been established, many of the most urgent ELSI issues have been identified, and many policy options to address these issues have been proposed" (NCHGR 1995, p. 21). Between 1990 and 1996, ELSI provided more than $32.5 million in funding through 128 research and education grants in more than 30 states and in Canada ( Table 1). The ELSI research budget is unique in that when originally created, it was specifically tied to the amount of money provided for the overall NHGRI budget. The NHGRI originally devoted 3 percent of its extramural budget to fund ELSI projects, but in FY 1991, it increased the ELSI budget to 5 percent, a figure that remains today. Table 2 lists the expenditures for each fiscal year since 1990 and the cumulative expenditures to date. The ELSI research budget at NHGRI this year will be about $7 million. When other sources of funding -- e.g., co-funding arrangements with other institutes and agencies and the funding of ELSI cores within large genome centers in the country -- are included, the total expenditure at NHGRI...

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