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The Academy

Is Bioethics Really a Bully? Really?

11 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

On his blog in The Independent, John Rentoul has a long-running feature called “Questions to which the Answer is No“.  In it, he examines the kind of screaming rhetorical-question headline much beloved of certain middle-market tabloids: “Is this photographic evidence of Nessie?”, “Does coffee cure cancer?”, “Does coffee cause cancer?”, “Does MMR bring down house prices?“* and so on.

Here’s the first in an intermittent parallel series from me: “Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?“.  For the inaugural post, step forward Dan Sokol, the BMJ”s “ethics man”, who asks in his latest column, “Is Bioethics a Bully?”.  The answer to this is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?.

(A warning before I start: I’m about to go off on one.  Even by my standards, this is big.  You might want to go and make tea.)

The general thesis of the article is this:

Bioethics, in its current form, has bullying tendencies. Ironically, it often adopts a paternalistic attitude towards clinicians, treating them as an ethically deficient species.  Although bioethics should not shy away from pointing out ethical concerns in medical practice, sometimes forcefully, it must not give way to negativism or, worse still, to a zeal to condemn.  Clinicians are easy targets and, without a command of the fancy theories and language of the accusers, possess few means to respond formally.

Is the thesis true? more…

Philosophy, Bioethics and Otherworldliness

31 Aug, 12 | by Iain Brassington


So Brian L picked up on Catarina’s post that picked up on Brian E’s post that picked up on the ever-simmering stuff about male circumcision – and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy position in particular – with the comment “Philosophers are a bit unworldly, but this is still quite something”.  I take the implication of that to be that, even by the standards of philosophers, this debate is abstract and abstruse and perhaps even a little omphalosceptic.

The comment reminds me of a conversation that Muireann Quigley and I had with someone – I can’t remember who – a couple of IAB’s ago: this unknown person – whom I think was a medic rather than a philosopher – was wondering aloud about the number of papers on things like enhancement, and IVF, and so on, and whether there weren’t more important things for bioethicists to think about – notably what to do about the various things that actually do directly threaten the life and welfare of real people right now. more…

Congratulations, Peter Singer

12 Jun, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Just a quick post to note that Peter Singer has been made a Companion of the Order of Australia – which is, apparently, the Aussie equivalent of a KBE.  The right-wing press ain’t happy – but irrespective of whether or not you agree with his claims, or his methods, Singer’s contribution to bioethics (and ethics more widely) is undeniable.  And since it’s not the role of the academy to say things that’ll make people happy, the fact that he has a record of saying things that don’t make people happy says nothing about his deserving the award.

H/T Brian Leiter.

CFP: Wellbeing and Public Policy

20 Apr, 12 | by Iain Brassington

This may be of interest to readers…

MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory – Ninth Annual Conference
Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT), University of Manchester
5th – 7th September 2012

Workshop on Well-being and Public Policy: Call for Abstracts

David Cameron, in a recent speech on introducing national measures of well-being to inform public policy, claimed that the UK government is aiming to measure the progress of the nation, “not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.” In short, the UK government is looking to measure the nation’s well-being in order to “help make a better life for people.” Other governments and international organizations are also increasingly focusing upon well-being as a policy goal.

This workshop will focus on whether, and how, public policy can and should be informed, in some way, by considerations of the public’s well-being. There will be up to 12 speakers in total, who will be invited to give a 30 minute presentation, followed by a discussion. Potential areas of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • The role of well-being in public policy
  • The limits of political utilitarianism
  • Paternalism and well-being
  • The implications of different theories of well-being for public policy
  • The interaction between different measures of well-being and public policy

If you are interested to present during this workshop, please send to one or both of us an abstract of no more than 500 words with your full name and institutional affiliation before May 15th.

Sam Wren-Lewis (University of Leeds):
Tim Taylor (visiting research fellow, University of Leeds):

Further details about the conference available at

JOB: Research Fellow in Bioethics/ Philosophy

9 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

School of Health and Population Sciences/ College of Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham

This post was created as a result of securing funds under the EU FP7 security call for collaborative research project SURVEILLE (Surveillance: Ethical Issues, Legal Limitations and Efficiency). In brief, SURVEILLE is a multidisciplinary project combining law, ethics, sociology and technology analysis is reviewing the impacts of different surveillance systems used to counter terrorism and serious crime, working with manufacturers and end-users. This post will support Heather Draper to conduct an evaluation of an ethics advisory service for technology developers and users that is being organised and run by Professor Tom Sorell (Centre for the Study of Global Ethics).

The post-holder will be based in Medicine, Ethics, Society and History (MESH) in the School of Health and Population Sciences, College of Medical and Dental Sciences. As such, the post-holder will work closely with Heather Draper and must be willing and able to contribute to the research effort in MESH (including making applications for further funding, as well research outputs, typically articles in high impact peer review journals). Accordingly, we are looking for a candidate who is both competent to conduct the evaluation (using qualitatively analysed interviews) of the advisory service and able work in bioethics, as well as being willing to engage with some of the philosophical work required for SURVEILLE.

Full details here; apply via this page.

Exporting and Using Medical Equipment

20 Sep, 11 | by Iain Brassington

A student writes:

I am a 5th Year Medical Student involved in a charity organisation that collects medical goods that are recycled/past expiry dates but still in good condition for re-use/excess from stocks, and aims to provide more impoverished clinics and hospitals abroad with these goods through students’ electives.

I have been trying to find ethical guidelines on this on the Net but have failed to find anything useful. 

Would you be able to help me on this matter?

We have already excluded any drugs/saline/liquid form of anything as I know that they will most definitely not be permitted.  However, the kind of equipments we collect include items such as sterile surgical tools such as scalpel blades, forceps, syringes, gloves, bandages, blood sugar monitors, catheter bags, etc.

I would very much appreciate your help!

I’m throwing this out to readers, because you may be able to suggest things.

For my part, I have a slightly sneaky feeling that whatever problems there might be with this are regulatory rather than stricto sensu ethical; I don’t think that there’re any standout ethical problems, but there’s a few things that’ve crossed my mind as possibilities that I suppose might be raised.

In no particular order, I suppose that some people might have worries like these: more…

Consultation: Emerging Biotechnologies

6 Apr, 11 | by Iain Brassington

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has announced that it has opened a consultation on emerging biotechnologies:

The Council is seeking views on the ethical issues posed by emerging biotechnologies. Your views will be valuable in shaping and informing the deliberations of a Working Party that was recently set up to consider this topic.

The Working Party is interested in the way society and policy makers respond to new biotechnologies and how benefits from these technologies can be secured in an ethically appropriate manner. This issue will be considered in light of both current examples of emerging biotechnologies, such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and older cases, such as genetically modified crops and assisted reproduction technologies.

All responses will be considered carefully by the Working Party. We aim to publish our final report, including recommendations to policy makers, in autumn 2012.

The consultation document and response form are available to download here.

Good News from Keele

24 Mar, 11 | by Iain Brassington

It was announced yesterday that both the Centre for Professional Ethics, and the philosophy programme at Keele, have been spared the axe.  From Angus Dawson’s Facebook message:

We are delighted to announce that due to substantial discussions over the last two days the proposals to close PEAK (the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele University) have been withdrawn.  This decision was accepted and endorsed at today’s meeting of Keele University’s Senate.  This means that existing and prospective students need not be concerned about their studies.  PEAK remains committed to teaching and research excellence – and is actively recruiting for next year’s intake to our courses.

However, we are required to produce a business plan outlining ways to ensure the required cost savings over the next few weeks.  This means that we may need to reactivate this campaign, but for now, we are focusing on positive developments for the future.

We would like to thank all of our friends and colleagues from across the world for their support.  We would particularly like to thank all those that took the time to write letters of support that went to our VC, DVC and Dean.  It was very important to our case that they considered our international reputation and you all made this obvious in the strongest terms.

This has been a difficult week (to say the least) for all of us and our families.   However, your solidarity and support has really helped us to put the evidence and arguments forward.

This is a remarkable victory in a relatively short period of time – and it is due to you all.

Congratulations to everyone there.

Medical Ethics at Keele to be Axed?

17 Mar, 11 | by Iain Brassington

This was supposed to be embargoed, but there’ve been enough leaks to make me think I can go public with it: news has emerged today that the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele (PEAK) is facing the axe, as is the Keele Philosophy programme.

A Senate Paper detailing the proposed cuts is widely available, and people outside Keele can view it here.  The general gist of it is that most of PEAK’s activity is to go, with a small amount absorbed into the Law School.  The Philosophy programme is to go as well.  It also looks as though the problems faced by PEAK and the Philosophy department are attributable to a combination of the recession and bad management by the University; hardly unique, hardly incurable, and hardly grounds to close the academic department.

As far as I know, the decision hasn’t been finalised yet – I believe that the relevant meeting will be in April – so there’s still time to do something about it.

Any decision to shut PEAK would be senseless.  I’m informed that, not so long ago, the department provided Keele with 2% of its overall income.  But even if you put that aside, PEAK is an academic gem, and any half-sane university would do everything it could to keep it going.  PEAK boasts an absurdly high concentration of talent, with world-standard researchers in reproductive ethics, public health ethics, and research ethics (to name just three fields).  Its web of alumni and former staff demonstrates just how successful it has been over the years at attracting and honing talent, and sending it back out in to the world.

I have personal reasons to be very attached to PEAK.  At the start of my career, the Centre went out of its way to provide me with an office, library access, and enough teaching to keep me solvent, and did so for long enough that I could cobble together enough publications to stand a chance of getting my current gig in Manchester.  The three years I spent there were a joy.

And, of course, my co-blogger David Hunter is based at Keele.

This is a very bad day for Keele University, and a very bad day for bioethics in the UK, if not the world.

Facebook groups for both have been set up here (for PEAK) and here (for Philosophy).  If you would like to express your opinion of the proposal (politely please) the VC can be contacted here:
Prof. Nick Foskett, VC: ; you could cc: Prof. Rama Thirunamachandran, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost:, and Prof. David Shepherd, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences – both of whom are signatories to the proposed restructuring.  Please, though, do keep things polite.

(Thanks to Andrew Willetts for the Senate Paper link)

Conference: Synthetic Biology: A Better Future?

1 Mar, 11 | by Iain Brassington

This workshop looks potentially interesting.

Public Dialogue Wednesday 9 March

Lindisfarne Centre, St Aidan’s College, Durham University

5pm Wednesday March 9th


5.15 pm Introduction to the Meeting – Dr Patrick Steel (Durham University)

5.20 – 6.45 pm A series of short talks from experts in the field providing a personalised view of synthetic biology and its future impact:

Dr Ray Elliott, Syngenta Ltd, “What Synthetic biology can do for agriculture”
Prof Mark Harvey, Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation, University of Essex, “Energy, food, materials and climate change: the 21st century challenge to biological science and technology”
Prof John Ward, Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, University College London, “What synthetic biology can offer for bioengineering”
Prof Robert Song, Department of Theology Durham University, “Synthetic Biology: Some ethical issues”

6.45-7.00 Refreshments

7.00-8.30 pm Open Discussion Between Panels and Audience Chaired by:

Prof Robert Edwards, Chief Scientific Officer for the Food Environment Research Agency
Prof Phil Macnaghten, Institute of Hazard Risk and Resilience, Durham University

8.30 Buffet – free for all registered participants

SPPI-NET is a BBSRC funded network which has the objective of promoting interdisciplinary collaborative ventures, involving both academics and industrialists, to explore the potential for producing synthetic plant products for industrial applications.  The IAS (Institute of Advanced Study) is Durham University’s ideas-based Institute which brings together some of the world’s finest researchers from every discipline to examine themes of major intellectual, scientific, political and practical significance.

pace my earlier post about theological ethics, I’m assured by people whose opinion is sound that Song is a decent ethicist; I’ll suspend my grumbles in his case.

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