• “What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster?” (From “Monster”, The Automatic, 2005)

    We thought of everything – oracles, crystal balls, telescopes – as ways of trying to see into the future, or at least to the horizon, for what might be coming along next.  Not just monsters, but developments that might engage and challenge the public interest and public values. We asked around, to find out how others do their horizon scanning, and found that few are really satisfied with their efforts and processes.  Yet it is important to our mission that we keep a keen eye on what might be coming along in the fields of biological and medical research, as our central aim is to inform public and policy debate with timely consideration of the ethical issues arising from such developments. Timeliness demands anticipation, and anticipation depends on good information about what is emerging or likely to emerge.

  • I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday lunchtime for the second ‘international summit’ on genome editing amid stories circulating that gene-edited twin girls had been born to a Chinese couple. The editing, it was claimed, had targeted the CCR5 gene, with the aim of introducing a variant that confers immunity to HIV and some other viruses by altering the cellular receptors to which the virus binds on the surface of human cells. At first I was sceptical, recalling the alleged cloning attempts of reproductive biologists more than a decade ago, but discussions in the margins of the summit suggested that the claims had credibility.

    The doctor responsible for this was Dr Jiankui He, a PhD physicist who went on to study bioengineering in the US, and who is currently on leave from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China (which has since condemned his work, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and almost everyone I have met in the last two days). He was on the conference programme for Wednesday, due to present in a session on ‘Human Embryo Editing’. (more…)

  • Since the Prime Minister’s announcement in October 2017 that England would move to an opt-out system of consent for organ donation, there has been a great deal of media attention on the subject. On one hand, it’s great to see this – there is evidence that raising public awareness leads to an increase in donated organs. On the other hand, there has been a great deal of media attention pushing claims that aren’t backed by evidence.


  • According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau ‘the first person who, having fenced in a piece of land, bethought himself to say “this is mine” and found others simple-minded enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society.’ While it is hard to share Rousseau’s nostalgia for idealised anarchy, the patterning of social relations that is entailed when people start staking claims to property can have morally ambiguous consequences.  Such claims are now, it appears, being staked on the emerging territories of electronic data.


  • The Nuffield Council of Bioethics runs a number of events and activities as part of a horizon-scanning programme to help identify topics that the Council might investigate. One useful tool is the convening of a diverse group of people from academia, business, policy, and civil society groups to explore a broad societal challenge. The most recent issue we chose for such an exploration is that of food sustainability, and specifically of the ethical and social questions raised by research and innovation that seeks to meet sustainable food challenges.


  • This summer I have attended, and spoke at, two interestingly related events. The first was an academic conference in Rome celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the second was a conference in Berlin marking the 10th anniversary of the Deutscher Ethikrat or German Ethics Council. I contributed, as Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, to a roundtable discussion of the latter conference’s theme: ‘Human Dignity in Our Hands – Challenges from New Technologies.’ (more…)

  • We have been eagerly awaiting the Science and Technology Committee’s report on research integrity since it began its inquiry in January 2017 (and following a break in proceedings and a reshuffling of the committee due to the general election). The report, published today, represents a further milestone in the debate about the state of the UK academic research sector. (more…)