What a Difference $10 Million Makes

BY DAN VORHAUS

Those of you who still bother to check your Harvard email accounts – that’d be 1Ls, 2Ls who haven’t yet locked up their summer job, and 3Ls, but only when they’re stuck in class – may have noticed an announcement last month concerning the Petrie-Flom Center. Or, as it was formally christened yesterday in New York City, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.

For many, the title is chock full of the kind of bio-buzzwords likely to prompt a reaction along the lines of, “Cool. But doesn’t Harvard have like six of those already?” Well, yes and no. As President Lawrence Summers outlined last month in his open letter, recent years have seen a push from within the Harvard community to develop and to analyze emerging areas of science and technology, particularly within the fields of medicine, genetics/genomics, and biotechnology. Unfortunately, HLS has been largely absent from this rush to embrace the genetic age. Until now.

It would make a nice story if the Petrie-Flom Center was announced as a coherent part of President Summers’ sweeping attempt at “Expanding Efforts in the Sciences.” The truth, as it happens, makes an even nicer story. As early as the start of this semester, despite considerable efforts, HLS continued to struggle in its attempt to provide its students with a broad spectrum of faculty appointments, curriculum offerings, and research opportunities devoted to health law policy, bioethics, and biotechnology. What we had was a basic health law course, one seminar each in bioethics and biotechnology, and not a whole heck of a lot more.

Enter Mr. Joseph Flom, of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who concluded that this was a problem. And when your name appears on the front door of one of the largest corporate law firms in the world, and you set your mind to remedying a particular problem, good things happen. In this case, Mr. Flom teamed up with the Petrie Foundation and hinted, strongly, to HLS that a research proposal on, oh I don’t know, emerging issues at the intersection of health policy and the law, with an estimated price tag of, say, $10 million, would be favorably received. Without trivializing the time and energy Dean Kagan, as well as a handful of key faculty members, devoted to pulling together and supporting this proposal, this was, effectively, an unsolicited $10 million grant. Unsolicited? When was the last time someone gave you ten dollars, let alone ten million dollars, that you didn’t ask for?

So what now? The money, presented yesterday in the form of an oversized check usually reserved for golf tournaments and lotto drawings (I wasn’t there but that is, clearly, the most likely scenario,) is nice, but it is only the beginning. Now it needs to be spent, and it needs to be spent well. The critical question now becomes, “What precisely does the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics (still too early to tell how that’s going to be abbreviated but I’m already well tired of writing that out. Unfortunately, PFCHLPBB doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) mean for HLS going forward?”

What the Petrie-Flom Center offers is the potential to act as a springboard: to position HLS as a clear leader in the field of health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics and, in so doing, to simultaneously legitimize this emerging field of legal scholarship. For whether you speak of “health law policy”, “bioethics, biotechnology and the law”, or any other permutation of those buzzwords, the fact remains that this particular discipline lacks the legal popularity and prestige of, say, Constitutional Law (or just about any other area of the law you can come up with). A fact which at least partially explains why HLS was having such a difficult time expanding its curriculum in this area beyond a few basic offerings.

Regardless, as our society is forced to come to grips with, and proceeds to pass laws governing, a host of recent scientific and technological advancements, terms like health policy, bioethics, and biotechnology are primed to become increasingly common in a legal context. As we wrangle over what to do with stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning procedures, and as yet unimagined technologies in fields like genetics and nanotechnology, the attendant legal questions will only increase in complexity and import. The Petrie-Flom Center promises HLS students, faculty, and researchers the opportunity to engage these questions as part of the leading-edge of an emerging and exciting field of law.

That, at least, is the grandiose vision that has been set before us. Now all that’s left to do is realize it.

Dan Vorhaus, a 2L, is co-president of the Harvard Ethics, Law and Biotechnology Society (ELaB).

More information on the Petrie-Flom Center can be found at: http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/petrie-flom/.

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