Merck KGaA has announced the creation of its Digital Ethics Advisory Panel. The panel, reportedly formed to address digital ethics questions for all three business sectors of Merck KGaA, compliments the existing Bioethics Advisory Panel, which provides guidance on bioethical questions arising from the company’s business and research.
Manfred Klevesath (MK), head of global health bioethics and digital ethics at Merck, spoke with Outsourcing-Pharma (OSP) about the reasons behind the creation of the panel, and the challenges life-sciences professionals face in the midst of ever-evolving technology.
OSP: Could you please share how the idea for the Digital Ethics Advisory Panel came about? What forces or issue in your research and other business aspects helped motivate its creation?
MK: The creation of a Digital Ethics Advisory Panel at Merck was triggered by the creation of Syntropy. In establishing Syntropy, a partnership between EMD Digital Inc., a subsidiary of Merck, and Palantir Technologies Inc., we explored the underlying business ideas with our existing Merck Bioethics Advisory Panel, which provides guidance on bioethical questions arising from Merck’s business and research.
During these discussions we realized that our current expertise was designed to address predominantly bioethical questions in Healthcare and Life Sciences. However, the digital space that Syntropy operates in opens a new playing field with e-health, e-health records, in-silico etc., that requires a different expertise.
It became clear early on in our conversations that a Digital Ethics Advisory Panel was needed to address these questions not only for Syntropy but also for other parts of our company.
OSP: Has Merck or any of its partners encountered any specific challenges regarding ethical use of data, in research or other areas?
MK: One of the topics that we’re very interested in right now is patient consent for data usage. We are exploring how to support patients and make sure a patient not only signs a consent form but understands what they are signing and how their data might be used.
While Syntropy does not collect this data or hand out consent forms, we see this as general industry challenge around patient data acquisition. One goal of the Digital Ethics Advisory Panel will be to set a standard here for collaborating with research centers.
There are existing laws such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) that govern the use and sharing of data, but the Digital Ethics Advisory Panel will take these parameters a step further to define what is ‘ethical’ beyond what we are legally allowed to do. The Digital Ethics Advisory Panel will offer guidance and expertise on these matters.
OSP: Why is it important for Merck (and other companies) to ensure ethical conduct in these areas?
MK: Merck is a family-owned company founded in 1668 based a strong sense of responsibility and ethical business practices. Having been around for a long time, the company operates from a perspective of long-term success.
From Merck’s beginning, it was emphasized that ethical decision making will lead to long term success. Research has shown that ethical conduct builds trust among clients, customers, patients and partners, which is key to long term success. We have a strong tradition and extensive experience in applying bioethical principles to our businesses, and we believe this is one of our competitive advantages.
OSP: Do you have any specific short- or long-term goals related to the panel that you can share with us?
MK: The Merck Digital Ethics Advisory Panel was recently established to provide external guidance and expertise on complex ethical matters around data usage, algorithms and new digital innovations. The panel has provided valuable guidance for the company to analyze potential ethical issues as we develop new digital technologies.
Digital ethics are a new and evolving area, and we are continuously looking to expand upon and address important issues as they arise. Our Digital Ethics Advisory Panel works in a bottom-up model where various teams can come to the board with questions or concerns they need guidance on to support the evolving needs of our business.
One of the initial activities of the panel will be to provide support to Syntropy, which specializes in healthcare data integration and collaborative solutions to help scientists harness the true power of their data. We look forward to leveraging the DEAP expertise down the line for additional areas of Merck’s business.