R. Alta Charo ’82

Scientific Method

Fall 2013

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For 30 years, bioethics expert R. Alta Charo ’82 has analyzed how the interplay between science and the law evolves. Today, she says, advances in stem cell research, biotechnology, and reproductive rights are challenging legal structures like never before.

“Science does not stop for the law to catch up,” says Charo, the Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin’s law and medical schools. “It would be wonderful if law could get out ahead of things, but there is risk in trying to write law for science [that doesn’t exist yet].”

Early in her career, Charo worked on policies related to infertility in the U.S. and family-planning programs in developing countries. During the next two decades, she established herself as an authority in stem cell policy and reproductive rights. In 2008, Charo joined Barack Obama’s transition team, focusing on the life-sciences issues most in need of attention during his presidency. She then joined the FDA as an adviser, working on how the agency might better regulate emerging technologies. The greatest challenge, Charo says, is to anticipate and manage novel risks while still allowing for progress.

“How does one develop a regulatory system based on yellow lights, instead of red lights and green lights?” she asks. “You don’t want to be an agency that just says ‘no.’”

In the classroom, Charo teaches her students that what is desirable for the legal system is not always the ideal scenario for science, and vice versa. “Today’s science is not just about making new toys,” she adds. “[Science] explores the deepest mysteries of human existence. With each development comes a new challenge to something we thought was written in stone, and was actually written in sand.”

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