There is a room in our basement offices – it is known as the Oval Room – where the Council reports are displayed on a range of shelves. As time goes on, and new reports are published, they have to squeeze up more closely to each other. Soon there will be no more room and we will have to decide which ones are relegated to the cupboards. But deciding that any one of them is out of date or has become irrelevant is rather difficult.
In April this year, the Council published its most recent report, Donor conception: ethical aspects of information sharing, and in June we will be publishing our next report, on Novel neurotechnologies. We have just started new work on Biological and health data and on Children and clinical research. In May we held a Forward Look seminar at which Council members and invited guests talked about possible future projects. These were on aesthetic surgery, medical tourism, scientific research integrity, and life-extending treatment.
The range of stuff that we are looking at and thinking about is one of the reasons why we enjoy this work, and the fact that there are always new issues keeps us busy and helps keeps us fresh. It also means that we involve a lot of people, as there are numerous voices that need and want to be heard on each of these issues.
But whilst I like the fact that we can always be looking forward to the next question and the next challenge, what has also been striking is the way in which our previous works remain in play. I have found myself recently giving at least as much of my time to following up work on old reports as I have to current concerns, and I think this is extremely encouraging. What we look for when we select projects is that they should be relevant and timely. But timeliness is rarely going to be a precise thing – issues of this kind have a certain durability and so, I am pleased to say, do our reports.
So far this year I have been, or will shortly be, involved in policy-related discussions in relation to our reports on Research in developing countries (published 2002 and 2005), Public health (2007), Dementia (2009), Human bodies (2011), Solidarity (2011), Biofuels (2011), Mitochondrial DNA disorders (2012) and Emerging biotechnologies (2012). That is not to mention the reports on Research involving animals (2005), Forensic use of bioinformation (2007) and others that are regularly name-checked.
We have a policy of following up actively on reports for a year after they are published, then continuing to pursue the main issues where they remain important. And they can remain important for many years. As our back catalogue grows, so do the demands, but I take it as a sign that we are, by and large, selecting the right topics at the right time. And we can never be sure that any of the issues will recede entirely into insignificance. Each time I go into the Oval Room I am reminded of all the debates that we have been, are, and might be involved in, and I am reluctant to pick out any one as being closed.
I think I’ll get some more shelves built.