Business Ethics: Marjorie Benbow (JD/MBA‰ ’99) Discusses Whistleblowing in Biotechnology

10.31.2011 Article, Faculty News, Science/Technology

Surround yourself with friends, wherever they may be, says Marjorie Benbow (JD/MBA’99), executive director of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Charlotte.

“You’ll never know who has your back,” Benbow said.

Benbow, a Winston-Salem native, spoke to students and faculty in the Wake Forest Schools of Law and Business on campus Oct. 26 as part of the Business Ethics Speaker Series. The discussion was titled “Business Ethics: Whistleblowing in Biotechnology.”

The “friendly” advice was born, at least in part, from an incident when — while Benbow was working as a scientist — dirty syringes and petri dishes carrying personal information were thrown into the common trash. A worker at the lab had told her about the offense — done without Benbow’s knowledge — but held off taking it too far up the supervisory ladder until she consulted with Benbow.

“Seek first to understand and then be understood,” said Benbow, repeating an important mantra.

She’ll never forget the worker, a woman named Mary.

“Mary saved my life from splintering by believing in me.”

For giving Benbow time to identify the source of the problem and subsequently correct it.

“Had she not done that, I could have been fired that day for all those violations.”

Still, Benbow had an important decision to make. Your lab, your responsibility. What do you do? she asked. Benbow didn’t know who broke the rules, but she was determined to find out. “It was my threshold,” she said. Benbow investigated and blew the whistle. The offender was eventually disciplined.
“At the end of the day I’m glad I did it.”

Science, law and business, Benbow told the audience, have great potential for synergy, offering a paradigm in developing a solid moral compass.

But the respective disciplines also have a potential to clash.
Science, she said, encompasses the facts. In business, it’s about money and the bottom line. The law is about legality and precedent. The life-science sector, she says, is poised for the triple bottom line — good science, societal benefits and good profits.

“That’s what’s exciting about the life-science sector,” said Benbow, who is licensed to practice law in North Carolina and is a registered patent attorney.

But attaining that synergy isn’t necessarily easy, and not having a moral compass can tend to lead followers off course. Benbow offered several hypothetical situations, including examples of dilemmas faced by pharmaceutical companies. “Do we go after the cure, or do we go after the treatment?”

As a bench scientist, which choice would you make? As the CEO?
Benbow related personal experiences that helped define — and test — her own moral compass. Intrigued with the idea of science shaping policy, Benbow visited Alaska to take part in a five-year study on the maternal habits of seals, which are born in April and May. Cruise ships, however, disturb the seals, and mother and offspring invariably become separated. “You might be in the most beautiful place on Earth, but what you hear are the cries of the pups looking for their moms.”

A team visited the Alaskan legislature and asked whether cruises could be pushed back a couple of weeks so as not to disrupt the seal population. The legislator had a question: What’s the economic impact?

“I started to realize that good science wasn’t all that it took.”

Benbow, who researched virology and regenerative medicine for a decade, worked as a management consultant for five years internationally and formulated public health policy for North Carolina.

Geek is chic, she says.

“Prior to attending Wake Forest, I was a real lab rat,” she said. “I had a real love affair with science; it started when I watched a man land on the moon.”

At UNC Charlotte, she managed its intellectual property and served as the Scientific and Technology Officer for the fourth largest hospital system in North Carolina.

She told the gathering in the Worrell Professional Center she is excited about the inherent possibilities of biotechnology.

“It’s a new industry, it’s emerging. And how exciting to match life forces with human ingenuity to provide those technologies that can really make a difference. Absolutely intoxicating.”

The rewards are great, but there are life-and-death risks and persistent ethical questions. “You have to have a certain amount of fortitude to do it,” she says.

She addressed what she termed as a theory-reality paradox as it relates to environmental policy. It’s akin to the NIMBY — Not in My Backyard — phenomenon, she said. Take nuclear power, for example. It’s clean, it’s relatively inexpensive and it has the potential for renewability. Still, people will protest the possibility of a nuclear plant near their homes.

“Think about how sometimes theory and reality don’t match,” she told the audience. Be aware of this, she said, when looking toward impacting health, studying world markets or practicing science.

Of course, age has its advantages.

“This is what I like about growing older. I really do like the fact that you find out the world’s gray and you get to navigate in it. It becomes more vital and more alive.”