IAB 2016: Graeme Didn’t Say “None”…

Every two years, I write a little post-mortem of the IAB conference, mentioning particular high and low points.  But since I’ve heard near-blanket praise for this year’s Edinburgh fandango, there won’t be too many of the latter.  And everyone with whom I’ve been in contact since has been highly impressed; we’re all still on a bit of a high.

So what was particularly good?  Well, in general, I thought that the standard of argument in most of the papers was high: it’s nice to see really big ideas being grappled with.  Matthias Risse’s paper on IP, particularly in the context of making drugs available to the least well-off, was the keynote on Thursday morning, and was notable in this regard.  Risse was arguing that the current IP regime owes too much to Locke, and not enough to Grotius.  In other words, he made no bones about an appeal to 17th-century political philosophy.  A simple and undemanding rehearsal of principlism this was not.  I’d perhaps have liked to hear more about rights to the medicines in question, as a complement to the point about IP rights – after all, unless there’s a right to the medicines, many of the arguments about IP may be moot; but I’m sure that is, or at least could be, done elsewhere.

Similarly, Gillian Brock’s paper about the medical brain-drain left a few questions unanswered – the proposal that there be some kind of mandatory service for professionals from low-to-middle-income countries arguably places a burden on some people for the misfortune of not having been born in a wealthy part of the world, and leaves open questions about what the point of eduction is to begin with (national needs or personal flourishing?) – but was very good all the same.  I missed Catherine Belling’s “Going Under and Coming Round”, but everyone to whom I spoke was mightily impressed – Stephen Latham seemed genuinely lost for words about how good it was; and I also missed Alondra Nelson’s keynote on the social life of DNA, which seems also to have been warmly received.

Of the parallel sessions, one that particularly stands out is Tamara Kayali Browne’s paper on sex-selection; there’s a different-but-related paper by her currently available as a preview in the JME.

On the Arts and Bioethics theme, Adura Onashile’s HeLa was a thoughtful take on a familiar story, and generated a really interesting Q&A; Vishal Shah’s Vellum was a strange and wonderful thing.

The Early Career Researcher emphasis seems to have been a great success, too.

So were there any down points?

  • Well, there were fewer parallel sessions than there have been in previous iterations of the conference (or at least, so it felt); and that did give the thing a slightly different dynamic.  However, I can’t put my finger on exactly what the difference was, qualitatively speaking; and the fact that there’s a difference doesn’t mean that things should have been done otherwise.  With a lot of people having been offered posters rather than oral sessions (one of my submissions being among them), I think that it’s simply a different way of going about things, and I suspect that any quibbles will boil down to taste.  I don’t think that there’re real grounds for complaint.
  • I was a little saddened that I didn’t get to play my normal game of spot-the-bizarre-paper-that-somehow-got-accepted-with-hilarious-consequences, because there was no bizarre paper, as far as I could see.  (Hmmm.  Maybe that means that my symposium paper was the bizarre one.  Eeeep.)  So that’s a minor disappointment, I guess.  But being denied the opportunity of a good facepalm in the pub afterwards isn’t all that much of a hardship.
  • At the ceilidh, a frightening number of people seemed to be unable to count to eight.
  • I was in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, and it was gloriously sunny and warm.  During the IAB, it was cold and wet.  The word “dreich” shouldn’t be usable in June, but it was this time.  Yet it’d hardly be fair to complain about the IAB on that basis.  Besides, nasty weather reduces the incentive to skive and go for a walk up Arthur’s Seat.  Besides besides… it would have been a shame to miss any of the conference.  So who cares about the rain?

Which is as much as to say: no down points really.  Well – except for that one paper talking about assisted dying that relied on a picture of a child next to a headstone where an argument should have been.  You know who you are.

That aside, though, it was all preternaturally good stuff.

After the closing ceremony, I asked Graeme Laurie how many virgins he’d had to sacrifice in order to make sure that things went as well as they did.  He did not say “none”.  Make of that what you will.

  • “Similarly, Gillian Brock’s paper about the medical brain-drain left a few questions unanswered – the proposal that there be some kind of mandatory service for professionals from low-to-middle-income countries arguably places a burden on some people for the misfortune of not having been born in a wealthy part of the world, and leaves open questions about what the point of eduction is to begin with (national needs or personal flourishing?) – but was very good all the same.”

    With all due respect. However we may view the moral argument itself this system was in place in eastern bloc countries for many years and there is ample empirical evidence to consult which was not done (Was it that stopped physician emigration from DDR or Poland, or maybe rifles of the border guards?). Also how growth of population of first year intern-physicians solves the problem I fail to understand. I have discussed this talk with multiple persons from former eastern bloc countries and they all were of an opinion that this could only have been said by a person who has no idea how this kind of typical communist measures work out. It’s sad how little of that experience has been disseminated to the west.
    This was unfortunately perhaps the worst talk of all IAB 2016 I have attended (with the possible exception of my own).

    • Hmmm. I’m really not sure.

      It’s true that she didn’t talk about how it’d be enforced, and that would be tricky. But it wouldn’t have to rely on armed guards. For example, a government might specify that a medic must work for, say, a year in local hospitals (with good pay, of course!) before being allowed formally to graduate. That’d make it very difficult to get work overseas. Whether that’d be just is a further question – and I’m just thinking off the top of my head here. But it wouldn’t require an Iron Curtain.

      • Even if it were enforceable (which I don’t think it is, as if anything it would be an incentive to leave before starting the degree – we had a government who wanted to militarise all the MD’s and it didn’t work out well) it would only delay them leaving for a year or more. How the brain drain is solved by more first or second year intern-physicians I do not see. Physicians are not a commodity and they come in all different types and “sizes” (experience / speciality). Problem of brain drain is not a problem of increasing people with “MD” type of degree in total workforce, but of systemic shortages across medical careers and systems.
        Anyhow it is all quite empty discussion as the requirement of legitimacy of government posited by the speaker to issue such laws is not fulfilled in many of the countries this talk was aimed at – like sub-Saharan African countries.
        Economical analysis of such measures is yet another topic. Lack of workplaces, the infrastructure to create them, and so on.
        This was a really bad talk consisting of non-sequiturs and hidden empirical assumptions.
        Another thing altogether is the moral side. Having experienced my parents generation’s stories of being told what kind of career they can do, being assigned to jobs in remote places and denied choices I am reluctant to just peacefully ignore such an infringement of basic human freedoms.
        If this ever results in a paper I would like to write a comment, time allowing, to show how deeply flawed it is and on how many levels.