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Roberts Ethics Laboratory

The Roberts Ethics Laboratory is a multidisciplinary team of scholars engaged in empirical and analytic study of issues of ethical salience across clinical, research, education, and policy domains. The laboratory was originally established in 1997 by Laura Weiss Roberts, M.D., M.A., as the Empirical Ethics Group at the University of New Mexico.  Based on the work of this group, in 2002 Dr. Roberts was invited to found and direct the still-thriving University of New Mexico Institute for Ethics.  Dr. Roberts brought the laboratory to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in 2010.  In 2017, the Stanford team received a BRAIN Initiative grant to examine ethical issues and decision making in innovative brain research, entitled Enabling ethical participation in innovative neuroscience on mental illness and addiction: towards a new screening tool enhancing informed consent for transformative research on the human brain.  Dr. Roberts, who serves as Principal Investigator of the project, will work with colleagues at Stanford to identify novel ethical issues that are emerging in the context of innovative neuroscience research, and to understand influences on research participation decisions of people living with mental illness and addiction.  

Dr. Roberts has systematically advanced six lines of investigation pertaining to vulnerable populations in society as well as the broad area of professionalism and ethics in medicine. 

research ethics

One line of work is focused on ethical considerations in the inclusion of individuals with severe physical and mental illnesses in clinical and genetics research.  Her initial studies explored the perspectives of people living with schizophrenia, HIV, cancer, and other health conditions regarding participation in clinical research.  This work demonstrated strengths of even highly vulnerable individuals in assessing risks associated with research and in making logical participation decisions, and it demonstrated stakeholder support for safeguards and current policies in human studies.  This initial work led to extensive subsequent projects comparing views of diverse stakeholders, such as ill individuals, community members, IRB chairs, and policy makers, on research practices.   

ethics and access to care

A second line of work is focused on disparities in health care access and in ethical standards of care related to stigmatizing conditions in rural and urban settings.  This series of projects examined ethical standards including informed consent, confidentiality, therapeutic alliance, and treatment adherence practices.  This inquiry inspired further study of barriers to care and human rights issues for special groups or populations with multiple, overlapping sources of vulnerability, e.g., homeless, ethnic minority (“runaway”) youth from rural areas or physically and mentally ill refugees.

ethics and health information
at work

A third line of work is focused on ethical, legal, and social implications of the use of health and genetic information and the conduct of genetics research in employment settings.  This inquiry compared the perspectives of employees and employers in relation to inclusion of workers in studies of genetics for conditions of varying natures and degrees of stigma, appropriate data-sharing, adequacy of confidentiality, consent, and disclosure of results practices, and related topics.

ethics and clinical care

A fourth line of work has focused on ethically-important practices in clinical care of individuals who by circumstance, condition, or characteristic may be more likely to be underserved or exploited, for example, individuals living with severe and co-occurring illnesses or individuals in the extremes of life. Dr. Roberts has performed studies of attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide, for example, and attitudes of physicians-in-training toward the care of patients with stigmatizing illnesses.

ethics and physicians

Fifth, Dr. Roberts has led a sequence of studies examining physical and mental wellbeing of physicians and physicians-in-training, pertaining to health care access, stigma, compassion, and identity formation.

professional ethics

And sixth, Dr. Roberts has performed a series of projects examining attitudes, optimal approaches, and outcomes associated with ethics and professionalism education in academic medicine.

Dr. Roberts's work has been funded over nearly two decades by the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health including the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and National Human Genome Research Institute, The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, The Milton Rosenbaum Foundation, and through philanthropic commitments.

The Roberts Ethics Laboratory is situated in the Section on Ethics and Vulnerable Populations in the Division of Public Mental Health and Population Sciences in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.