Simon Beard’s posts

Guest Post: Consequentialism and Ethics? Bridging the Normative Gap.

Written by Simon Beard

University of Cambridge

After years of deliberation, a US moratorium on so-called ‘gain of function’ experiments, involving the production of novel pathogens with a high degree of pandemic potential, has been lifted [https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/statements/nih-lifts-funding-pause-gain-function-research]. At the same time, a ground-breaking new set of guidelines about how and when such experiments can be funded has been published [https://thebulletin.org/new-pathogen-research-rules-gain-function-loss-clarity11540] by the National Institutes of Health. This is to be welcomed, and I hope that these guidelines stimulate broader discussions about the ethics and funding of duel use scientific research, both inside and outside of the life sciences. At the very least, it is essential that people learn from this experience and do not engage in the kind of intellectual head banging that has undermined important research, and disrupted the careers of talented researchers.

Yet, there is something in these guidelines that many philosophers may find troubling.

These new guidelines insist, for the first time it seems, that NIH funding will depend not only on the benefits of scientific research outweighing the potential risks, but also on whether or not the research is “ethically justified”. In defining what is ethically justifiable, the NIH make specific reference to standards of beneficence, non-maleficence, justice, scientific freedom, respect for persons and responsible stewardship.

Much has been made of this additional dimension of evaluation and whether or not review committees will be up to assessing it. Whereas before, it is said, they merely had to assess whether research would have good or bad outcomes, they now have to determine whether it is right or wrong as well! Continue reading

Guest Post: Scientists aren’t always the best people to evaluate the risks of scientific research

Written by Simon Beard, Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

How can we study the pathogens that will be responsible for future global pandemics before they have happened? One way is to find likely candidates currently in the wild and genetically engineer them so that they gain the traits that will be necessary for them to cause a global pandemic.

Such ‘Gain of Function’ research that produces ‘Potential Pandemic Pathogens’ (GOF-PPP for short) is highly controversial. Following some initial trails looking at what kinds of mutations were needed to make avian influenza transmissible in ferrets, a moratorium has been imposed on further research whilst the risks and benefits associated with it are investigated. Continue reading

Using birth control to combat Zika virus could affect future generations

Written by Simon Beard
Research Fellow in Philosophy, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford

This is a cross post of an article which originally appeared in The Conversation.

In a recent article, Oxford University’s director of medical ethics, Dominic Wilkinson, argued that birth control was a key way of tackling the Zika virus’s apparently devastating effects on unborn children – a strategy that comes with the extra benefit of meeting the need for reproductive health across much of the affected areas.

However, although this approach might be one solution to a medical issue, it doesn’t consider the demographic implications of delaying pregnancy on such an unprecedented scale – some of which could have a significant impact on people and societies. Continue reading

If abolishing China’s one child policy led to more children, would it be so bad?

Written by Simon Beard

This is an unedited version of a paper which was originally published on The Conversation:

please see here to read the original article

After 35 years, the Chinese government recently announced the abolition of its controversial one child policy for one that will allow all Chinese citizens to have up to two children. Whilst this increased respect for personal autonomy is undoubtedly good, it is not clear if the lifting of the ban will actually lead to a marked increase in China’s birth rate – while the birth rate has dramatically reduced since the policy was introduced, so too have those of neighbouring countries without such policies.

Whether or not Chinese parents decide to use their new-found rights to procreate, the move does raise questions. Would it be good or bad if more children were now born in China and the population grew? And what value might there be in any changes to China’s population size and structure? Continue reading

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