Scanning the horizon, one song at a time

“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.

So, as proposed in our Strategic Plan for 2018-2022, we took a fresh look at our horizon scanning activities and have established a more sustained and coordinated approach:

  • We have set up a new advisory group of Council members with the specific task of consulting, monitoring and advising the Council on new developments.
  • We take greater care to tap into the knowledge and expertise of others around us, with regular meetings and informal contacts with those in research councils, scientific and professional bodies, Government Departments, etc, and through attendance at conferences and events.
  • We have initiated a programme of themed horizon scanning workshops, looking at the ways in which science and technology might respond or contribute to major societal challenges. The first of these was on food sustainability.  The next workshop will focus on developments in the field of crime and security.
  • We have developed a more systematic approach to the monitoring of academic news and opinion websites, blogs and social media for developments relevant to biological and medical research.
  • We now hold a monthly staff ‘lunch club’ when we discuss developments that have come to our attention. Even in a relatively small office it is easy to miss opportunities for sharing thoughts, reflections and experience.

The task will be an ongoing one, but already this work has paid dividends. We have been able to gather an interesting and important set of ideas about what is emerging that better enables us to classify, define and prioritise our areas of work.  We try not to call it a ‘list’, as the links and interrelationships between these various items can themselves constitute interesting ways of approaching ethical perspectives.  Nevertheless, we have brought it all together under a number of themes:

  • Human reproduction
  • Shaping human beings
  • Beginning and end of life
  • Health and society
  • Food, farming and the environment
  • Crime and security
  • Research ethics

As a further step in avoiding an alphabetical listing, we have presented this all in an infographic that tries to better illustrate the range of issues; their connectivity; and their imminence. This is our first shot at this, and it will need to be regularly revisited and revised as various strands of science, technology and innovation surface, emerge, recede or even disappear.  We’d really like to hear from people about how this presentation works, what it might include, how and where various topics might be positioned on it, and what should be our priorities.

“Too many seekers, too few beacons, but through the fog we’ll keep on beaming.” (From “The Game”, Echo and the Bunnymen, 1987)

Alongside our horizon scanning work, in 2018 we also started a new ‘active response’ programme, which seeks to improve the way the Council contributes to current debates in bioethics. It involves activities that allow us to respond quickly, for example through bioethics briefing notes, discussion workshops and blogs. Whilst the horizon scanning programme keeps us abreast of the latest developments, and those coming in future, our active response work means that we can make timely contributions based either on previous work or through shorter, more rapid pieces of work.  Whilst these don’t have the depth of our major projects, and don’t draw conclusions or make policy recommendations, they do give us increased capacity to inform and stimulate public discussion, and might lead on to further extended projects.

In 2018 we made contributions on a range of topics, including:

Looking ahead a short distance, we’ll be organising a workshop on epigenetics in the spring, and the ethics of meat consumption is high on our agenda, too. Beyond that, our programme for 2019 remains pretty flexible, so that we can remain as responsive as possible to new events and policy demands.

“I’d like to ask you just one question. Please, tell me where do we go from here?” (From “Where do we go from here?”, The Trammps, 1974)

The horizon scanning and active response programmes that we have established over the last year have kept us pretty busy, and the feedback that we have had so far has been really positive. We need to keep working at it both to track what is happening and to offer effective contributions; and to do that we need to hear from as many people as we can, as much and often as possible.  So…. Where do we go from here? Have we identified all the issues that are out there? Does our presentation of them in the infographic work?  What should we prioritise?  How can we better engage with people to ensure that we stay ahead?  It would be good to hear from you in the comments below. We are always happy to receive ideas through our suggest a topic page.

Comments

  1. I love your infographic Hugh!

    I am sure you are on it all as usual, but a couple of things popped into my head when reading your blog – the lack of mention of the engagement of citizens themselves and involvement of civil society organisations of all types internationally – particularly in hard to reach areas, both of which are becoming increasingly important.

    Also, maybe the ‘shaping human beings’ area could do with more ‘granularity’ the slippery slope in this area is the critical thing I think. Gene editing of inherited diseases to memory enhancement etc. Memory enhancement I’ll have now if it’s possible, I don’t mind if I have an antenna sticking welded to my head! (Joke, ish!)

    Just being nitpicky and may have overlooked important references to this, in which case apologies! Good work as always and good luck for 2019.

  2. After receiving your suggestions of your top bioethics songs, we’ve put together a 2019 playlist. You can find it on Spotify here:https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4YUyAhXW7WeNpxTXEZG0PX?si=QI45ytEFQLyv7hhzYblj9w

    Monster (The Automatic)
    The Game (Echo and the Bunnymen)
    Where do we go from here? (The Trammps)
    Look Out There’s A Monster Coming (The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band)
    The End (The Doors)
    Me, myself, I (Joan Armatrading)
    Life’s What You Make It (Talk Talk)
    Where Is My Mind (The Pixies)
    The Robots (Kraftwerk)
    Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The Flaming Lips)
    Sacred Ground (Living Colour)
    Genetic Engineering (X-Ray Spex)
    Hey! (Rise of the Robots) (The Stranglers)
    Genetix (The Stranglers)
    It’s the End of the World as We Know it (REM)
    Transformer Man (Trentemøller)
    Seasons in the Sun (Terry Jacks)

  3. What about the institutional arrangements for devising GLOBAL bioethical rules of conduct, monitoring these, and policing bad behaviour. Biological research is now being carried on in so many disparate places that there is a risk of someone somewhere carrying out work of potential danger to others. Should we not have more robust systems to prevent this?

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