The Futures of Bioethics: What Should It Look Like?
Emma Nance and Jamie Webb consider the question, “The Futures of Bioethics: What Should It Look Like?”.
From the 12th to 13th of June 2023, Emma Nance and Jamie Webb welcomed over 80 people to the University of Edinburgh to the 18th annual Postgraduate Bioethics Conference (PGBC 23) to consider the question, “The Futures of Bioethics: What Should It Look Like?”. This theme was chosen to prompt postgraduate participants to reflect on past and present issues in bioethics as well as to use the conference as an opportunity to horizon-scan, with a view towards anticipating how the bioethics field could, and should, expand in the future. In doing so, we aimed to create an interdisciplinary event that combined the knowledge, enthusiasm, and expertise of scholars from a wide range of fields and backgrounds with an interest in bioethics. These fields included: Public Health, One Health, Population Health, Medicine, Artificial Intelligence, Data Ethics, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Law, Social Sciences, Cognitive Science, and beyond.
PGBC has met annually since 2006 and in this time has grown into an invaluable way for postgraduate bioethicists to meet, network, and build their own research community. 2023 was the first year that PGBC has been hosted in Scotland and was a fantastic way to warmly welcome new and existing members of the postgraduate bioethics community. The University of Edinburgh has a thriving bioethics network, with bioethicists populating several different departments at the University, including the Centre for Biomedicine, Self, and Society, the Mason Institute, and the Usher Institute.
PGBC 23 was a wonderful way to not only gather bioethicists from within the University of Edinburgh but also to showcase the work being done at the University with students from other institutions around the world. We welcomed participants from around the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Norway, Portugal, Italy, USA, Switzerland, and Czech Republic, to name a few. In hosting PGBC 23, we strengthened existing collaborations with UK institutions and forged new relationships with bioethicists internationally.
PGBC is important as it is specifically a “by postgraduates, for postgraduates” event, where everyone is at a similar early stage of their bioethics career. 45 students were invited to give oral presentations and to participate in group Q&As with their peers. Presentations were grouped thematically into parallel sessions where students presented work on topics including: Global Health Justice; Trust and Data; Reproductive Ethics; AI and Healthcare; and FemTech and Feminism. In addition, 15 students delivered poster presentations, on a variety of fascinating and timely subjects including but not limited to: patient and public involvement in data initiatives; mental health in Ghana; multicultural healthcare systems and the role of family; and posthumous gamete retrieval.
Three fantastic keynote speakers, all leading experts in their fields, shared their views on the Futures of Bioethics. From the University of Oxford, Professor Kingori focussed on the importance of time in justice in bioethics: when is a crisis done? Which demographics and the health outcomes they face do we consider particularly relevant when declaring a pandemic over? Professor Farrell, Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at Edinburgh Law School and Director of the Mason Institute, focussed on the legal and ethical issues around the regulation of sex tech, considering the strengths and limitations of current legislation. And Dr Ganguli-Mitra, who works as a Senior Lecturer in Bioethics and Global Health, serves as Deputy Director of Mason Institute for Medicine, and is affiliated with the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, explored what it would mean to truly decolonialise bioethics, and invited the audience to consider how a decolonial lens could influence their own future work in bioethics.
We also had two brilliant panels, the first on advice from Early Career Researchers and the second on a newly launched initiative called ‘Black and Brown in Bioethics’ aiming to centre, amplify, and celebrate the experiences of Black and Brown bioethicists. The four ECR panellists had a wide range of experiences -- from having just submitted their thesis, to completing multiple postdocs, to working as a lecturer for several years, to recently publishing a monograph (the Mason Institute’s very own Dr. Emily Postan!) -- which led to some very interesting discussions. The Black and Brown in Bioethics raised very good points about the futures of bioethics, whose knowledge is prioritised and whose is not, practical ways to decolonise the curriculum, and how to be an academic activist without the burnout.
As PGBC is an important way for students to meet and network in a non-hierarchical, friendly environment, we included several social and networking activities. These included a drinks reception sponsored by the Mason Institute, a grab-and-go dinner from a local restaurant to encourage participants to get to know each other over a meal, a ceilidh celebration at the Teviot student union featuring a local student ceilidh band, and a walk to Edinburgh Castle. It was important to us that we focus not only on the fascinating academic work that young bioethicists are undertaking but also to provide a space for the fledgling community to form new connections in a fun and friendly environment.
In order to encourage an inclusive environment for young researchers, we prioritised affordability and accessibility for all participants. Through the generous support of the Centre for Biomedicine, Self, and Society, we were able to pay for at least one night of free accommodation for all participants. This support was vital for ensuring that all participants could access and attend the conference, regardless of background. We also set up travel bursaries and fee waivers that students could apply for and had a ring-fenced £1000 care fund to assist with accessibility needs. Furthermore, as part of our on-going commitment to accessibility and sustainability, all plenary and parallel sessions were streamed online so that speakers and attendees could join virtually. This was to ensure that people with different access needs, caring responsibilities, health needs, and so on, could all attend virtually where necessary.
We are very grateful for the extremely generous financial and administrative assistance that our sponsors provided in making this conference accessible, affordable, and sustainable. This conference was only possible due to generous support from the following sponsors: The Mason Institute; The Institute for Medical Ethics; the Edinburgh Futures Institute; the Centre for Biomedicine, Self, and Society; the Scots Philosophical Association; The Wellcome Trust; The Usher Institute; Edinburgh Infectious Diseases network; and the Bayes Centre.
It is difficult to organise, plan, and host a two-day conference at the best of times, let alone when both co-organisers are also pursuing full-time PhDs, but we couldn’t be happier with the results of PGBC 23. We have learned how to run a successful, large-scale conference, liaise with multiple stakeholders both within and outwith the University of Edinburgh, apply for funding, stick to an event budget, prioritise accessibility and affordability, use and troubleshoot hybrid technology, run a ceilidh, and, most importantly, to trust and rely on each other as colleagues. We are both very grateful for the support that our respective departments (and beyond!) have given us as well as to our supervisors for understanding that we had to divide our time between our PhD work and PGBC 23.
While we had some expected technical difficulties and minor issues during the conference, overall we are extremely happy with both the academic and social aspects of PGBC 23. We spoke to many bioethicists who said that this was the best conference they had ever been to and that they had had fun both presenting their work and at the social events, views which were reinforced in the post-PGBC 23 feedback form we circulated (further pulled quotes below). From social media updates, we have also seen that many people made connections within the bioethics community that we hope they will maintain. Finally and anecdotally, when Emma went to a bioethics conference in Oxford a few weeks later, she met with several participants who had also attended PGBC 23 and who now were fast friends, which was wonderful to see. To us, the impact of PGBC 23 is building and maintaining a thriving young bioethics community that is self-sustaining and will grow for years to come.
To reflect once more on the theme of our conference: if PGBC 23 is any indication of the conversations, relationships, and passion for the discipline to come, then the futures of bioethics are in very good hands.
Anonymised long-form feedback from PGBC 23 below:
- “The feedback on my presentation was very useful and has given me the confidence to put my work out there. I now feel as though people want to hear about my work and I am less nervous about sharing it with other researchers and academics. So, thank you for this opportunity!”
- “There's a beautiful young bioethics community that makes this work a lot of fun! Also its up to anyone in our field, so including myself, to foster a more inclusive bioethics by e.g. decolonialsing [sic] the curricula”
- A ceilidh is a great way to meet people in a casual setting during a conference!
- There is such a great supportive community of fellow bioethics students to grow in
- I thought it was a really supportive environment. I found the Early Career Researcher panel particularly useful, as they shared really helpful tips for surviving and thriving in academia. I thought it was also very inclusive. I was very pleased to see that there was a Black and Brown Bioethics panel, as these voices are not often centred in bioethical discourse. Agomoni's talk was also particularly excellent as it emphasised the need to look towards and participate in the shaping of a future bioethics where everyone truly matters.
- Love love loved the Cèilidh! Thanks both for all of your hard work :)
- Thank you so much, Jamie and Emma and everyone else involved. It was probably one of the best conferences (in terms of both organisation and content) that I’ve ever been to. And with the additional elements like the Ceilidh we were given a real taste of Scotland. Thank you.
Emma Nance is a second-year PhD student on the Wellcome Trust funded programme One Health Models of Disease: Science, Ethics, and Society. She is from New York but has studied for several years in Scotland, first completing an undergraduate degree in English Literature in 2019 and completing an LLM in Medical Law and Ethics in 2020. Emma's current work examines the bioethical implications of human and non-human biosurveillance with a view towards integrating and updating the policies under a One Health and global justice framework. This work is conducted under the auspices of the Roslin Institute and the Usher Institute and supervised by Dr. Sarah Chan, Professor Lisa Boden, Dr. Emily Postan, and Dr. Juliet Duncan.
Jamie Webb is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Technomoral Futures whose research aims to synthesise philosophical bioethics, qualitative interviews, and public deliberative processes to arrive at recommendations for the ethical use of AI in healthcare resource allocation. Jamie was a researcher on the UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator until July 2022, working on its public values, transparency and governance work stream. Previously, Jamie worked as a Research Associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone’s Department of Population Health. He earned an MA in Bioethics at NYU as a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar, and gained his undergraduate degrees at Pembroke College, Cambridge, receiving a BA in Philosophy and an MSci in History and Philosophy of Science.