Manning Clark on making the most of faculty meetings

I have been reading Manning Clark’s A Historian’s Apprenticeship – a short book about writing the 6-volume History of Australia.

He sketched many of his initial piecemeal ideas and impressions in a little black book – ‘I began to write down ideas in all sorts of places’. He continues,

I wrote many an entry in the little black book when my colleagues at the Australian National University were telling each other at meetings of the Professional Board or the Faculty of Arts, in long a dreary speeches, how important their subject was and what a contribution they had made to the advancement of wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes the entries record the comfort derived from imagining these colleagues on the hoist in a garage for an oil and a grease in preparation for their next encounter with their academic rivals; sometimes they too are seen as being nailed to a cross, viewed from the eye of pity as men and women who would never get what they wanted – the power they coveted, or the applause or the recognition that were forever out of reach.

Bioethics, a humble servant to the queen?

Image taken from page 25 of 'The Men in the Moon: or, the 'Devil to pay.' With thirteen cuts [by George Cruikshank], etc. [A satirical poem-chiefly in reference to the proceedings of Messrs Cobbett, Hunt, and others.]'

The role of bioethics has been questioned in an op-ed by the silver-maned experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s piece has generated some heated online responses. While some commentators call for context and nuance in reading Pinker’s piece, others read it in the context of the turf wars over the role of science and the humanities in the modern production of knowledge. Pinker has held a lead role with #TeamScience in these disputes. Until recently, bioethics has been able to negotiate these wars by trying to get along with everyone. However, Pinker’s recent call for bioethics to “Get out of the way” and allow medical science to do its life-saving thing has publicly questioned whether bioethics is helping or hindering medical science.

A questionable lineage

In the not so distant past, theology and philosophy both laid claim to the title “queen of the sciences” – a claim that not many today would grant either. In terms of institutional and financial support, both are in the descent (see, see). This is not to say that we should smooth the pillow and send them off into the quiet night. Both will continue their important work, but many of the hangers-on will continue to retreat to other parties. Vice-Chancellors and politicians won’t be launching books or holding soirees to celebrate a new breakthrough in Hegelian scholarship, for instance.

While the social and economic capital of theology and philosophy declines, their child, Bioethics, is perhaps in a more opportunistic optimistic position. Since the 1970s bioethics has found a role in service of the new queen – medicine. Medicine fulfills the role once held by theology and philosophy in ordering the human sciences.* The importance of medicine and medical research in the modern university is unquestioned. In the same way theology was once essential to Oxford University; medical research has become essential for a major research institution to be taken seriously. Its role is more than this however. Medicine is not only greatly valued, but determines the value of other human sciences. The closer a discipline’s proximity to medicine and the goal of securing human health and preventing curing disease (see), then the greater the value of that discipline.

Bioethics has been placed, or placed itself, within and alongside medical research.

In the 1970s, philosophers and theologians offered initial responses to public scandals in research and clinical practice. For example, Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the US, the experiments on women with cervical cancer at New Zealand’s National Women’s Hospital, or the death of Jesse Gelsinger; who died while participating in a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania. Events such as these led to acceptance that ethical oversight of medical research and practice is essential. Ethics committees were established, and ethics education became standard for medical students and researchers. The success of these interventions has led Pinker to conclude that medical researchers have learned to behave and appropriate checks are now in place. Therefore the shackles of bioethics can be loosened.

Keeping medical research “in check” is only part of the story.

A role also opened up for bioethics centres and bioethicists to calmly communicate breakthrough medical research to anxious publics. In Australia, Monash University established the Monash Centre of Human Bioethics in 1980 with Peter Singer as Director. The initial role of the centre was to promote the rapidly advancing research in artificial reproductive technologies at Monash University. Alan Trounson, the former director of the Monash Centre for Early Human Development, recalls:

I had to sort myself out in the early days just like anyone who works in a new area involving something like human embryos. If we hadn’t had Peter Singer around in those days I think we might not have pursued some things to the extent that we have.

Singer, among others, helped further the research of Trouson and his colleagues by communicating to the public that the moral status of an embryo is not something to be concerned about and that so called “test-tube” babies are just fine.

Pinker believes that it is time for bioethics to “get out of the way”. However, rather than saying “stop”, a lot bioethicists have arguably greased the wheels of medical science and widened societal ethical boundaries to allow more and more research to be done. So perhaps in this case, what Pinker meant to say was not “get out of the way”, but “get in your place! Tell the public that editing genomes is not to be worried about because biomedical research is progressing and soon disease will be regressing”.

*This is not to suggest a neat linear progression from theology to philosophy to medicine. The effects of theology, for instances, are still very present in philosophy and medicine (and bioethics).

Is your research policy relevant? Does it matter?

Policy-relevancy is repeatedly upheld as a gold standard for quality academic research. Two recent examples of this appeared in my social media feeds.

The first came from an interesting paper testing a new tool to assess the impact of health intervention research on real world policy and practice. The second came from a LSE Blog post arguing that university professors are promoted based on publishing research in obscure journals that no one reads, rather than engaging the public debate or shaping public policy.

Both of these articles generated a lot of discussion about the role and purpose of academic research.

Reflection on what we are doing, and why, is always important. But when a number of brilliant colleagues openly doubted the value of their work because it didn’t have “real-world” implications I began to wonder if something was awry with the quest for policy-relevancy and “real-world” impacts.

Good research makes good policy, right?

Policy translation as the gold standard is particularly prevalent in the social sciences (the literal gold standard, commercialization, is less applicable). The translation of research into policy is good and appropriate for some types of research. However, it is not always appropriate or desirable. We should be cautious to expect all research to translate into public policy.

In the push towards policy relevancy there is little acknowledgment of the effect of “policy paradigms” and their influence on what research gets adopted and what research gets ignored.

The ins and outs of policy paradigms

In his highly-cited 1993 paper “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning and the State”, Peter Hall defines the “policy paradigm” as a ‘framework of ideas and standards that specifies not only the goals of policy and the kind of instruments that can be used to attain them, but also the very nature of the problems they are meant to be addressing’.

Policymakers work within this framework and it is within these frameworks that certain policies are imaginable, thinkable and implementable, and others are not.

Analogizing from Thomas Kuhn’s famous thesis about scientific paradigms and normal science, Hall argues that there is “normal” policy making that occurs within the policy paradigm.

Research that is policy relevant contributes to the normal policy making process within a paradigm. To be sure there can be adjustments to the paradigm due to research, but these adjustments do not challenge ‘the overall terms of a given policy paradigm, much like “normal science.”’ For example, research demonstrating an association between food choice and certain diet-related non-communicable disease may recommend the implementation of food labels. Although often disputed by industry, the recommendation of food labels is consumer and market orientated, which fits within the contemporary policy paradigm.

Paradigm shifts

In contrast, Michael Marmot’s recommendations to address health inequalities or the recommendations of climate scientists

via a tweet @TheDivideFilm 14 Jan 2014  See the Film

via a tweet @TheDivideFilm 14 Jan 2014
See the Film

do not readily fit within the market-orientation of the contemporary policy paradigm. The global market economy as we currently know it cannot operate in the “normal” way if policies addressing the social determinants of health inequalities or climate change are to be introduced.

By considering the influence of policy paradigms, the inability for research to be translated into policy may have less to do with the research or researchers, and more to do with the social, economic and political conditions. It is possible that the research that falls outside the policy paradigm is simply redundant, but it could also be that it is not imaginable or possible within the paradigm.

Research that falls outside the paradigm can contribute to a paradigm shift. Research that experiments with different policy ideas, points out the failure of current policies or the incommensurable relation between the policy paradigm and the sociopolitical reality can contribute to a shift in policy paradigms.

Shifting the policy paradigm is a key reason why it is dangerous to value university research solely for its ability to work within the “normal policy making” context. With stagnate policy debates over health expenditure, climate change, asylum-seekers, and housing affordability etc, perhaps we don’t need all research to neatly translate into policy. Rather we need to value and promote research that forces a shift in policy paradigms.

Continental Philosophy and Bioethics: Part 1 – Challenges and Dissmissals

Both bioethics and continental philosophy are outliers of “mainstream” philosophy. However, their shared outlier status has not resulted in camaraderie but mutual suspicion, if not contempt. Brian Leiter describes bioethics as possessing a “dim reputation in academic philosophy”.[i] While bioethicists such as Daniel Callahan describe continental philosophy “as not philosophy at all”.[ii]

Perhaps the intention of these comments is to dismiss rather than challenge continental philosophy or bioethics, but I have taken them as a challenge. I am not interested in defining these disciplines or academic fields; especially as the work of philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas or Jeffrey Bishop demonstrates the artificial nature of the boundaries surrounding these classifications. However, there is a general bar or faculty room acceptance of Leiter’s characterization of bioethics and Callahan’s assessment of continental philosophy. Depending on philosophical predilections Leiter’s remark may have raised a smile or Callahan’s evaluation a smirk. As someone trying to simultaneously swim in the continental and bioethics streams I find these comments frustrating, yet acknowledge the pressing challenges issued in both.

The challenge issued to bioethics from philosophy, not just from Leiter but a host of others, can be summarized as: (i) bioethics is too close to industry (broadly construed); (ii) bioethics is philosophically limited; (iii) bioethics is philosophically monotonous.

The challenge issued to continental philosophy from bioethics, and again not just from Callahan, can be summarized as: (i) continental philosophy is too theory-laden; (ii) continental philosophy is too descriptive and lacks normative application; and (iii) continental philosophy cannot be translated into policy.

In response, I do not intend to merely defend these academic fields, but acknowledge the challenges and suggest that despite apparent opposition they can fruitfully support each other and produce important analytic insights and ethical engagements.

[i] Brian Leiter, “American Journal of Bioethics, Redux: Is this for real?Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, 2012, . [Accessed on December 3, 2012].

[ii] Daniel Callahan, The Roots of Bioethics: Health, Progress, Technology, Death  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 9.