Initiating a new project

Topic selection criteria

For a topic to be selected for future work, it must come within the Council’s terms of reference, and should therefore meet the following criteria:

  • Does it come within the broad sphere of research in the medical or biological sciences?
  • Is the subject ‘new’, or are there new reasons for looking at it?
  • Is the topic timely?
  • Does it raise complex ethical questions?
  • Does it have significant policy relevance and/or will it anticipate or respond to public concern?
  • And finally, can the Council make a distinctive contribution?

In addition, the Council considers whether the topics and types of projects provide a balanced portfolio that spans the Council’s areas of interests, types of activities and range of audiences.

How does the Council initiate a new project?

Depending on the nature of the topic, the Council will decide on the format that the project should take. Many of the Council’s previous projects have established a Working Party to examine and report on the issue. These typically bring together a broad range of expertise and projects might last 18 months to 2 years, resulting in ethical analysis and practical ethical guidance, published both as a report and in other appropriate formats.

In its Strategic Plan 2012-2016, the Council committed itself to developing new ways of working, and has since taking a more flexible approach. The Council’s process for topic selection now includes explicit consideration of not only the subject to be addressed, but also the mode of working, timescale, and the type of outputs that may be appropriate in each case. For example:

  • Mitochondrial DNA disorders – this project engaged a small Working Group of 6 experts and delivered a discussion report in a short timescale to support ongoing policy discussion. The group met for the first time in November 2011, and the findings were published in June 2012.
  • The culture of scientific research in the UK – this project was overseen by a Steering Group made up of staff from six of the UK’s leading scientific bodies, and involved an extensive survey and nationwide events programme aiming to collect the views of the research community. The short report was timed to coincide with the publication of the outcomes of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF).
  • Children and clinical research – while this project engaged a traditional Working Party and published a major report, it also involved extensive input from children, young people and parents through a survey and stakeholder group; the production of a film as part of its examination of the role of Research Ethics Committees; the production of an illustrated magazine and animation aimed at young people; and collaborations with partners to translate the materials in languages other than English.
  • Naturalness – overseen by a Steering Group of Council members, this project is examining a cross-cutting theme which has featured in a number of previous Council projects. The project involved a number of evidence gathering activities including desk research, an expert roundtable meeting, public dialogue activity and poetry collaboration to explore the use of naturalness in language. The findings will be presented to key audiences including policy-makers, journalists and scientists, in addition to a public event bringing together poetry and debate.
  • Genome editing – due to the range of potential applications of new technologies related to genome editing, this project will be carried out in stages enabling the Council to differentiate between an assessment of the technology itself, before starting one or more short, focused report(s) providing practical ethical guidance for a specific field of application.

 What if the Council decides not to pursue a topic?

Some topics may be discussed at a Forward Look or may be included in the future work long-list but may not ultimately be taken forward as projects. This may be because the topic is not urgent, because of the number of ongoing projects the Council is already committed to, or because the topic (in its current form) does not meet all the selection criteria.

In other cases, after careful consideration, the Council may actively decide not to pursue a topic. For example, having discussed the ethical implications of resource pressures in the NHS at the 2014 Forward Look, the Council concluded that “there was little scope at this time for the Council to add to this dialogue, which has been, and continues to be, heavily debated within academic, policy and political spheres. It is clear from the extensive literature on this topic that many of the challenges are practical and managerial in nature.” (See the 2015 updated background paper).

Have your say

If you would like to suggest a topic for us to consider as part of our future work list, we would like to hear from you.

Previous work

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Nuffield Council on Bioethics
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+44 (0)20 7681 9619

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