Crossposted from Rising to the Challenge, The Campaign for Johns Hopkins


Nearly 100,000 Americans sit on the waiting list for kidney donations, but only about 17,000 of the organs are transplanted each year — despite the fact that living donors can provide kidneys. What could help close the gap between the need and the supply? Might providing some kind of altruistic incentives or financial compensation for donors be a step toward saving thousands of lives, and with what ethical implications?


That thorny question is one of nine that Hopkins faculty are examining with Exploration of Practical Ethics grants administered by the Berman Institute of Bioethics. Established in part by a generous gift from university trustee Andreas Dracopoulos, the program funds one-year pilot studies that address key questions in professions and scholarly disciplines, within institutions, and throughout society.


“Research institutions like Hopkins are perfect for this kind of inquiry, because we don’t just produce graduates who can go out into the world and solve these problems. We produce the thought processes that inform the way future leaders will make decisions,” says Maria Merritt, an associate professor in the Berman Institute and Bloomberg School of Public Health. Merritt is overseeing the portfolio of funded awards in her role as program officer for the Exploration of Practical Ethics effort.


Vikram Chib and Mario Macis


Informing the debate over the ethics of payments for organ donation is the goal of a project proposed by Mario Macis, an associate professor in the Carey Business School, Vikram Chib, an associate professor in the Whiting School of Engineering, and Nicola Lacetera, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.


“The discussion is essentially the same today as it was 30 years ago,” Macis says. Anti-market advocates say paying for organs is “against human dignity,” or a market would create undue coercion or pressure to donate. But, Macis says, these are assumptions based on public sentiment, not empirical evidence. Because paying for organs is illegal in the United States, a potential model to test a market for organ donation has not been tested — a circumstance Macis and his team seek to change with support from an Exploration of Practical Ethics grant.


Along with co-investigator Jeffrey Kahn, the Andreas C. Dracopoulos Director of the Berman Institute, Macis and Chib designed an experiment that simulates the ethical and economic dimensions of a market for organ donations. Participants engage in activities that will allow the investigators to examine how motivations such as altruism, personal financial gain, and tolerance for pain determine individual choices, as well as how certain areas of the brain behave when people make these decisions.


“We’d talked about this kind of approach a while ago at a symposium, but the call for proposals for this grant really helped us solidify this idea,” Chib says.


The Exploration of Practical Ethics Program, particularly its seed funding, is also important, Macis says, because external grant providers might perceive this kind of experiment – and the sensitive societal issue it addresses – to be too risky an investment.


“With this grant we’ll produce a pilot study that will essentially be our proof of concept, the foundation on which we can apply for grants to expand this research,” Macis says.


Macis, Chib, and Kahn, as well as the other Exploration of Practical Ethics grant recipients, presented their work at a January 2017 symposium at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The other projects and their investigators are:



For more information about the how to support Exploration of Practical Ethics program the Berman Institute of Bioethics, please contact Joshua Else, associate vice president for development. Give Your Support: BERMAN INSTITUTE OF BIOETHICS



SEE ALSO: Round two: RFPs open for funding to support practical ethics activities

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