The UK's Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee: Who Knew?

The other day, on the Twitters, I was following an exchange between Duncan Wilson (University of Manchester, twitter) and Adam Hedgecoe (Cardiff University, twitter, [1] and learned that the UK now has a ‘Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee’ (ESBAC). At first I was somewhat embarrassed that I had not heard about it before but after a quick Google I stopped beating myself up as it appears that there has not been much discussion of it. Certainly little has appeared in the news and although there has been a bit more talk online, it doesn’t actually amount to much. 

The committee now has a chair (Professor Sir Alasdair Breckenridge) and the members have been appointed. After a quick look through the list, and a little more googling, it seems there are a lot of scientists, a few lawyers, some industry representatives and four people I could identify as ‘bioethicists’ (the term is, one might say, 'contested'. Some other committee members could well be classed as bioethicists and, arguable, all the members of the committee are de facto bioethicists by virtue of that fact). 

For what it is worth, those I identified are:

•  Dr Paula Boddington (Somerville College, University of Oxford) 

•  Professor Bobbie Farsides (Brighton and Sussex Medical School)

•  Dr Stuart Hogarth (Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London)

•  Professor Joyce Tait (Economic and Social Research Innogen Centre, University of Edinburgh)

The general consensus appears to be that the ESBAC has been constituted as a successor to the Human Genetics Commission (HGC). Given the expertise on the committee – which appears to be based around genetics and cancer, something which also applies to the expertise at least three of the four bioethicists I identified - this seems a plausible suggestion. And at least one member of ESBAC previously worked with the HCG. However the full terms and conditions of the committee have yet to be published so it remains unclear what, precisely, this new body is to be tasked with. In one of the few pieces I came across that directly commented on the ESBAC this question, of what the remit, scope and purpose of this new body might be, is the focus of discussion. Interestingly the piece is co-authored by Dr Hogarth, one of the newly appointed members. 

Finally, whilst we cannot quite say ‘so much for the bonfire of the quangos’ all this does raise the question of what, precisely, was wrong with these previous bodies that they needed to be succeeded? Reform in this area was on the cards prior to the Coalition Government. The Rawlins Report (Academy of Medical Sciences 2012) into the ethical governance of 'health' research [2] was initially commissioned by Labour in early 2010 and, on its publication in early 2011, it was welcomed by the Coalition. It is, and was expiated to be, very much ‘reform’ orientated. In addition Labour considered the amalgamation of the HTA and HFEA (and some other bits and bobs) but these “plans were abandoned after a cross-party parliamentary inquiry held in 2007” (In Nature: Cressey 2007:674 [free .pdf] h/t Dr Wilson). Perhaps an amalgamation is what, after all, will result. Since the consultation about the successor bodies to the Human Fertilisation and Embryological Authority (HFEA) and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) is on-going we can expect further news and developments in this general area. I will try to keep abreast of them here. 

Once again, thanks to Duncan Wilson and Adam Hedgecoe who first brought my attention to the creation of the ESBAC. Any the misinformation and outright errors contained in the above are, of course, due to my own failings. Perhaps Duncan and Adam will weigh in using the comments if I got anything spectacularly wrong. 

[1] In bioethical circles Duncan, a historian bioethicist (although I expect he does not like this latter term), is famous for his work on the Warnock Committee [OA .pdf] whose recommendations led to the formation of the HFEA, Professor Sir Ian Kennedy [OA .pdf], and Tissue Culture [review]. Whilst Adam, a sociological bioethicist, is just famous

[2] A somewhat personal bugbear: the report largely considering biomedical research and ignored social scientific research. Whilst it was not explicitly tasked with looking at social scientific research this clearly formed part of its remit. However, the final report makes little specific mention of social scientific research and the ways in which its ethical governance might differ from that required for biomedical research.