The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is a unique and important body. With the demise of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, it is one of only a few remaining independent, credible and well-respected science advice bodies. It brings together genuinely multidisciplinary groups to consider ethical implications of advances in biological science and technology. But, crucially, it tends to take a very catholic (rather than Catholic) view of what ‘ethics’ is.
The Council has launched a study on emerging biotechnologies, including excellent people like Richard Jones, Andy Stirling and Jane Calvert, who have been involved in past debates about GM crops, Nanotech and Synthetic Biology. (I was recently asked along to one of their roundtables to be grilled on public engagement).
The central challenge with governing emerging technologies is an inability to predict implications. We govern in a sea of ignorance. In the past, therefore, the ‘ethics’ label has proven unhelpful. Shoals of pilot fish ethicists are attracted to each new scientific shark. But the bioethicists, neuroethicists and geoethicists cannot be sure of ethical implications until the technologies themselves are established. That is not to say that they can’t help open up the sorts of discussions that need to take place around any new technology. But they must resist the illusion of control that comes from a narrow ethical analysis.
Nuffield’s view of ethics is broad enough to encompass social, economic and political implications. And it is notable that this new working group leans more heavily on social scientists than it does on philosophers.
It is a shame that the Nuffield remit rules out Geoengineering, the set of emerging technologies that I currently consider most interesting. But the study should nevertheless be an important step in a journey that began with the RS/RAEng nano work and advanced with the Royal Commission’s Novel Materials report (pdf).
You have 24 hours to respond to their consultation.