For questions about the Council’s role and its methods of working, please see How the Council works.
What is bioethics?
Ethics is about what we ought or ought not to do. Bioethics is one branch of ethics. Since the 1970s the term has been used to refer to the study of ethical issues arising from the biological and medical sciences.
According to the Encyclopedia of Bioethics (1995. p. 250) it encompasses: “the broad terrain of the moral problems of the life sciences, ordinarily taken to encompass medicine, biology, and some important aspects of the environmental, population and social sciences. The traditional domain of medical ethics would be included within this array, accompanied now by many other topics and problems.”
It is sometimes said that science moves so quickly that ethics has difficulty in keeping up. Just because something is technically possible does not mean that should be done. It is crucial that ethical, legal and social issues raised by the introduction of a new technology are considered from an early stage. By bringing together ethical analysis and scientific understanding, society can evaluate policies and regulate developments.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics aims to anticipate developments in medicine and biology before problems arise, providing independent and timely advice to assist policy makers and stimulate debate in bioethics.
The study of bioethics includes topics such as:
- genetic testing and screening
- reproductive and therapeutic cloning
- the use of stem cells
- embryo research
- assisted reproduction
- prenatal screening
- end-of-life issues including euthanasia
- the use of human tissue
- organ donation
- the use of animals in research
- genetically modified crops
- research with human subjects
- the ethics of research related to healthcare in developing countries
- patenting DNA
- patient confidentiality
- resource allocation
Where can I find out more about bioethics?
There are many academic institutions and organisations with an interest in bioethics, both in the UK and internationally. See our Useful links page to websites with further information, including UK organisations, academic institutes, National Bioethics Advisory Bodies, and other bioethics organisations. There are also links to journals and bioethics search tools.
Addressing ethical issues
There is no set method for addressing an ethical issue. However, there are some generally accepted guidelines which can be applied to an issue. As a starting point for any discussion, it is essential that information is accurate and from an objective and reliable source. It is also important to be able to distinguish between facts and opinions. Clarity of terms and expressions is crucial.
An important part of any ethical inquiry is to examine the implications of holding a particular view. Drawing up a list of the arguments on both sides, both for and against an idea, can help to focus discussion. A further step is to analyse the basis for these arguments. The conclusions of an argument must be defensible, so it is important to look for gaps, inadequacies, fallacies or unexpected outcomes. Having assessed the validity and persuasiveness of all the arguments, a decision may be reached or it may be apparent that more information is needed.
Does the Council offer funding for training in Bioethics?
The Council is not constituted to provide funding for external projects including training, and so is unable to assist with such requests.
What funding is available for bioethics research in the UK?
The Wellcome Trust has a Society and Ethics programme, including a grants scheme which supports research that explores the social and ethical aspects of biomedical research and health.
A number of grants are also available in the US, for example the Fogarty International Centre supports several Bioethics in International Research awards.
What are the common routes to a career in bioethics?
There are diverse career paths in the field of bioethics. Individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, including philosophy, science or law, may become interested in the area. Some may choose to undertake formal training in bioethics, for example by taking a Master’s degree. A number of universities in the UK offer courses and training.
For details of courses, please see Useful links
Read an article about possible careers in bioethics (with a US focus): Bioethics programs evolve as they grow, David Magnus Nature Biotechnology, October 2001 Volume 19 Number 10 pp 991 – 992
For current vacancies in bioethics see Bioethics.net