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Joint Review of the 2011 UK and Ireland Postgraduate Conference in Bioethics.

10 February 2011

Alexis Paton, PEALS Newcastle, Simon Jenkins, Birmingham, Greg Morlock, Birmingham and Alex McKeown, Bristol.

The 2011 Postgraduate Bioethics Conference, held at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre on January 5-7th was a great opportunity to see what the next generation of young researchers in the bioethics world are working on. The theme of this year’s conference was the integration of sociological methodologies within bioethics research. Sometimes referred to as the ’empirical turn’, this interdisciplinary approach has been a growing and significant development within the field for some time. Increasingly bioethics is a discipline which is being actively applied in a clinical context, rather than just studied by moral philosophers, making the decision to use the empirical turn as the focus for the conference both timely and relevant.

The three days of conference sessions featured a wide range of academics, postdocs and PhD students from philosophy, sociology and anthropology, as well as practising clinicians. The topics presented ranged across the spectrum of bioethics in clinical medicine and the biological sciences. From the ethical dilemmas faced by nutritionists (Bernice Tighe, Warwick), to the question of organ donation queue-jumping (Greg Moorlock, Birmingham), to the ethical considerations for stem cells in Iran (Mansooreh Saniei, CBAS KCL), each presentation shed light on this new wave of bioethical inquiry.  It was clear from the first day that speakers had taken the word “bio” to mean much more than medicine. A case in point was the delightful talk by Sonia Barroso Brandão Soares on the hugely wide-ranging ethical impact of genetically modified soy beans. Talks like this one gave the event a well-rounded feel and reminded attendees of the scope of the subject.

In addition to hearing from postgraduate presenters, the conference also hosted five plenary speakers who presented on the future of bioethical research, the highlights of which included a study on medical tourism, presented by Dr. Leigh Turner (Minnesota), and a discussion of the future of empirical work in bioethics by Prof. Alan Cribb (CBAS KCL). Added-value sessions from early career researchers focused on how to pursue a career in bioethics, representatives of funding bodies offered tips for making successful applications, and experienced researchers reflected on what bioethics might look like moving forward. These helped to give postgraduates a practical understanding of their field, as well as motivation to get our ideas out there and noticed in the academic world.

Sociology was at the forefront of this year’s conference, dominating the majority of presentations either through the use of social theory or sociological methods and methodologies in research.  While the presentations were often light on normative considerations, it was evident that bioethics is not something that should be seen as solely reserved for philosophy. The days of philosophers beavering away in darkened rooms deciding right and wrong actions for people they have never met seem to be long gone. It is clear that moving forward, empirical, sociological work has a part to play in bioethical research. Despite this focus on empirical work, other facets of bioethics were not ignored. Discussion did not shy away from the lack of a distinct definition of bioethics, something often levied as a criticism of the field, and participants entered into productive disagreements on how bioethical investigation ought to be conducted. The conference showed that, rather than requiring a distinct definition, the field is one that is open to development and improvement rather than merely relying on the same old techniques and methods. Each and every discussion following the presentations helped to map out new areas of interest and forge new and different pathways through previously mapped terrain.

All in all the conference provided an accessible platform for postgraduates to present their work and receive critical and useful feedback from their peers and professors as well. Next year’s conference will surely be another resounding success if this year’s presenters are an indication of what’s to come.

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