How the Council works
How does the Council work?
How are the Council members selected?
How does the Council select topics to examine?
What is a Workshop?
What is a Working Party?
How are the Council’s publications checked for quality?
What happens after a report is published?
How does the Council ‘do’ ethics?
What is the Council’s position in the UK policy framework?
How can I get involved in the Council's work?
Members of the Council meet quarterly. During these meetings, the Council reviews recent biomedical and biological advances that raise ethical questions and selects topics for further exploration. In addition to quarterly meetings, the Council considers broader themes and future work topics at its annual ‘Forward Look’ meeting. Separate subgroups of the Council also meet to discuss specific matters in more detail, for example, membership and education.
Download a diagram showing the organisational structure of the Council.
The Council has developed an open and transparent process for selecting new members.
The Council aims to maintain a wide range of expertise across the fields of science, medicine, social science, philosophy and law. Members serve on the Council for three years, with the possibility of an additional three-year term.
When vacancies arise, the Council advertises for new members in the national press, through its widely-distributed newsletter and on this website. The Council's Membership Subgroup considers and makes recommendations to the Council on future members selected from the respondents to the advertisements.
Selection is based on the following criteria:
- If professionally engaged in bioethics and/or biomedicine, members should be nationally or internationally recognised in their field, or show the potential for being so;
- Must be able to demonstrate an interest in bioethics;
- Must be willing to contribute to bioethical debate in an open and constructive manner;
- Must be prepared and able to work with others;
- Must have good skills in analysis and communication.
The Council aims to achieve an appropriate balance as regards gender and ethnic background. Members do not receive remuneration, but reasonable travel expenses are paid.
The Chair of the Council is appointed by the Nuffield Foundation, after consultation with the Council’s other funders.
The Council wishes to maintain a pool of suitable candidates with the appropriate background, skills and experience to assist in the Council's deliberations. We would particularly welcome expressions of interest from physicians, scientists, teachers, lawyers, people with experience of media relations and health management, and those with a background in philosophy and ethics. Expressions of interest are also welcomed from people with other skills and experience relevant to the Council.
If you are interested in becoming a member of the Council, please send a short statement of interest accompanied by a curriculum vitae to:
Nuffield Council on Bioethics
28 Bedford Square,
London WC1B 3JS
Tel: 020 7681 9619
The Council has a thorough, ongoing process for selecting new topics, which is overseen by a Future Work Subgroup.
Download a diagram showing topic selection flow.
The Council consults widely with a wide range of organisations and individuals including government, institutes and societies, industry, non-governmental bodies and researchers engaged in biological and biomedical research to identify a number of potential future work topics that the Council may wish to consider.
The Future Work Subgroup meets annually to draw up a shortlist of topics for the Council to investigate further. The shortlist of topics is presented and discussed in further depth at the Council’s annual 'Forward Look' meeting, with the help of invited speakers and guests. The Council then decides which topics are the most appropriate for further exploration.
Have your say
We are seeking your input and would like to hear from you about the issues that you think the Council should be investigating. Below you will find the link to download a summary of topics that have been suggested to the Council. If you would like to send in your feedback on the issues put forward here, or suggest other topics for consideration, please email Carol Perkins on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please bear in mind the following questions when sending us your responses:
What topic(s) do you think the Council could make the most useful contribution to and why?
What type of output would you find most helpful for your preferred topic(s) – for example, in-depth report, fact sheet, public discussion event, policy focussed materials, guidelines, etc.
Download a summary of possible future work topics.
For a topic to be selected, it must fit the following conditions:
be novel: be linked to substantial new developments in medicine or biology
raise ethical questions and concerns of some complexity
be timely: the Council aims to be proactive in its selection of new topics
lead to a report that would be likely to have an important impact on policy or practice
be within the Council’s terms of reference
What happens once a topic has been chosen?
Typically, once the Council has selected a potential topic for consideration, it holds an in-depth workshop to help members decide whether the issue merits further examination. If so, the Council will normally establish a Working Party to examine and report on the ethical, social, legal or practical issues, though other types of activity and output can also be considered.
The Council holds one-day workshops when a potential topic for consideration has been identified. Workshops allow a preliminary discussion of issues to determine whether it would be appropriate for a Working Party to address them. A range of invited experts, selected to represent a balance of different interests, meet for the workshop. If the group decide an issue merits further examination, they might propose possible terms of reference for a future Working Party.
Once the Council has identified a work topic, it establishes a Working Party to examine and report on the issues. The Chair of the Working Party is appointed by the Council, and he/she is usually an independent, senior academic with an interest in the field and knowledge of the wider policy environment. The Chair is co-opted as a member of Council during the course of the Working Party, to facilitate communication between the Working Party and the Council.
The Chair and the Council together appoint further Working Party members. Members are chosen to ensure that the Working Party contains a range of experience and skills, while retaining a committee of workable size (between around 6 and 12, depending on the length of the project). Members must be willing to contribute to debate in an open and constructive manner, and to work together to produce a rigorous consensus report. Members of Working Parties take part in a personal capacity (rather than representing any organisations or groups) to ensure they are free to explore different views and positions.
The Working Party puts considerable effort into engaging with a wide range of organisations and individuals in order to ensure that everyone who has a stake in the issue has an opportunity for their voice to be heard. A three-month consultation exercise typically attracts 100-150 responses. In addition, face-to-face evidence-gathering are held on specialist topics. Activities to engage with people who do not have a prior interest in the topic have also taken place. For example, deliberative workshops with recruited members of the public were held as part of our inquiries on dementia and the donation of human bodily material. The views and evidence gathered from consultation activities are extremely useful, providing the Working Party with a wide range of views on the issues of concern.
The Working Party produces its report in consultation with the Council. The Council reviews drafts of the report before it is submitted for peer review and then approves the final report prior to publication. External experts, chosen by the Working Party and members of Council, carry out the peer review. These experts are selected to represent a spectrum of opinion and are expected to provide constructive criticism. Once the report is approved by the Council, it becomes the report of the Council.
Working Parties are supported by the secretariat, with a senior member of staff serving as secretary to the group. Producing a report typically takes one to two years, during which time the Working Party will have around 10 meetings to examine issues, consider and develop arguments, and draft a report.
All publications of the Council are reviewed by external experts (‘peer reviewed’) before they are published. The Working Party, made up of members from a number of different fields (for example, science, medicine, law and philosophy), identifies between six and ten individuals who have a range of expertise relevant to the topic under consideration. The Council then invites the reviewers to comment on an early draft of the report. The responses of the reviewers are discussed by the Working Party and the draft is re-worked in the light of the comments received.
Reproduced below is the standard set of questions that peer reviewers are asked to consider when evaluating the report. These questions will usually be modified for particular reports, or new questions may be added.
Are the arguments presented coherent and defensible?
Are there other relevant papers of which the Working Party should be aware?
Is the evidence presented in a fair and balanced manner? Are uncertainties or incompleteness in the evidence explicitly recognised?
Are the conclusions and recommendations valid and useful? Is the rationale clearly explained? Are they achievable?
Are all the principal areas of concern addressed or are there significant omissions?
Are there areas of duplication that should be eliminated?
Are the various chapters of the report sufficiently similar in style to produce a homogeneous whole?
Is the report written in a style that makes it accessible to a wide range of users?
The Council initiates a programme of follow-up activities after each report is published. Initially, media coverage, presentations at conferences and communication with a wide range of stakeholders aim to ensure effective dissemination of the report. In the next phase, uptake of the Council’s recommendations by the appropriate organisations is monitored and encouraged. To find out more, please see the Activities section and the News section, where you can find the latest news for each report.
The Council’s work is guided by its terms of reference. These require it "to identify and define ethical questions raised by recent advances in biological and medical research …” Ethical frameworks for consideration of particular issues are developed on a case by case basis by Working Parties in consultation with the Council. The Council is committed to developing explicit ethical frameworks, norms, and principles that can be applied coherently and consistently to the issue in hand, and in particular can underpin the conclusions and recommendations reached in the Council’s reports.
The Council takes the view that its terms of reference do not require it (or its Working Parties) to adopt the same ethical framework or set of principles in all reports. The Council is therefore not bound by the values of particular schools of philosophy (for example, utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics) or approaches in bioethics, such as the ‘four principles of bioethics’ (autonomy, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence), or the Barcelona Principles (autonomy, dignity, integrity, vulnerability).
Download the 2006 external review of the way ethical frameworks feature in the Council’s publications (PDF) by Sarah Chan and John Harris.
The landscape of policy-making in bioethics has changed significantly during the Council’s history. The Council was established by the Nuffield Foundation in 1991, in response to concerns that there was no government-sponsored national body responsible for overseeing developments in biomedicine and biotechnology. There was seen to be a need for an independent body that could review developments in research, identify ethical issues, make recommendations about policy and stimulate public discussion. The Council perceives its independence as critical to help maintain public trust in its work.
In 2000, following a review of the regulatory framework for biotechnology, the Government decided not to create an official national bioethics advisory body, as exists in many other and some parliamentary committees already fulfilled the role. Instead, the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) was established as the UK Government's advisory body on how developments in human genetics impact on people and on health care. The HGC was disbanded in 2011, and in 2012 the Department of Health established a new expert advisory group, the Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee (ESBAC). The Council meets regularly with the UK Department of Health to exchange information about current and future work, and is represented by its Director as an ex officio member of ESBAC.
In 2008, members of both Houses of Parliament considered, as part of the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, whether the UK should have a government-appointed or Parliamentary bioethics commission. All amendments to the Bill relating to this were ultimately withdrawn before the Bill passed through Parliament.
If you would like to suggest future work topics for the Council, please e-mail email@example.com.
Vacancies for Council members are advertised in the national press and on this website. The Council also invites expressions of interest in becoming a Council member.
The Council occasionally offers summer internships to people wishing to gain experience in the area of bioethics. When they arise, these placements are advertised on the job opportunities page.
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