The Futures of Bioethics: What Should It Look Like?

In this article

University of Edinburgh PhD students share what they learned from organising the Postgraduate Bioethics Conference, supported by the Edinburgh Futures Institute. 

University of Edinburgh PhD students Emma Nance and Jamie Webb organised the 18th annual Postgraduate Bioethics Conference with the support of the Edinburgh Futures Institute. In this article, Emma and Jamie share highlights of the conference and what they gained from the experience.

On 12 to 13 June 2023, we welcomed over 80 participants to the 18th annual Postgraduate Bioethics Conference (PGBC) held at Edinburgh Law School, Old College campus. The theme of the interdisciplinary conference was: “The Futures of Bioethics: What Should It Look Like?”. We chose this theme to prompt postgraduate participants to reflect on past and present issues in bioethics, as well as to anticipate how the field could, and should, expand in the future.

PGBC has met annually since 2006 and has since grown into an invaluable way for postgraduate bioethicists to meet. This was the first year that PGBC was hosted in Scotland, and it was a fantastic way for us to welcome new and existing members of the postgraduate bioethics community. The University has a thriving bioethics network populating several different departments, including: the Mason Institute, the Centre for Biomedicine, Self, and Society, the Usher Institute, the Roslin Institute, the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences, and the Edinburgh Futures Institute.

Beyond the UK, PGBC also enabled us to share and showcase our work with international students. We welcomed participants from the Netherlands, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Norway, Portugal, Italy, USA, Switzerland, and Czech Republic, to name a few.

PGBC is important as it is specifically a “by postgraduates, for postgraduates” event, where everyone is at a similar early stage of their bioethics career. 45 students were invited to give oral presentations and to participate in group Q&As with their peers. Presentations were grouped thematically into parallel sessions where students presented work on topics including Global Health Justice, Trust and Data, Reproductive Ethics, AI and Healthcare, and FemTech and Feminism. 15 students delivered poster presentations, which prompted a wide range of discussions and knowledge-sharing.

Three keynote speakers, all leading experts in their fields, shared their views on the Futures of Bioethics. We also had two panels. The first panel featured advice from Early Career Researchers. The second introduced a new initiative called “Black and Brown in Bioethics”, which aims to centre, amplify, and celebrate the experiences of Black and Brown bioethicists.

As part of our commitment to accessibility and sustainability, all plenary and parallel sessions were livestreamed.

As the conference was an important way for students to meet in a friendly environment, we included several social activities, such as a drinks reception, a ceilidh, and a walk to Edinburgh castle.

Through our sponsors, we were able to provide at least one night of free accommodation for all participants. We set up travel bursaries and fee waivers that students could apply for and had a ring-fenced £1000 care fund to assist with accessibility needs.

Overall, we received positive feedback from conference participants. One participant shared:

“It was probably one of the best conferences (in terms of both organisation and content) that I’ve ever been to. And with the additional elements like the Ceilidh we were given a real taste of Scotland.”

To us, the impact of PGBC 2023 is building and maintaining a thriving young bioethics community that is self-sustaining and will grow for years to come. If PGBC  is any indication of the conversations, relationships, and passion for the discipline to come, then the futures of bioethics are in very good hands.

Emma Nance is a second-year PhD student on the Wellcome Trust funded programme One Health Models of Disease: Science, Ethics, and Society. She is from New York but has studied for several years in Scotland, first completing an undergraduate degree in English Literature in 2019 and completing an LLM in Medical Law and Ethics in 2020. Emma’s current work examines the bioethical implications of human and non-human biosurveillance with a view towards integrating and updating the policies under a One Health and global justice framework. This work is conducted under the auspices of the Roslin Institute and the Usher Institute and supervised by Dr. Sarah Chan, Professor Lisa Boden, Dr. Emily Postan, and Dr. Juliet Duncan.

Jamie Webb is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Technomoral Futures whose research aims to synthesise philosophical bioethics, qualitative interviews, and public deliberative processes to arrive at recommendations for the ethical use of AI in healthcare resource allocation. Jamie was a researcher on the UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator until July 2022, working on its public values, transparency and governance work stream. Previously, Jamie worked as a Research Associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone’s Department of Population Health. He earned an MA in Bioethics at NYU as a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar, and gained his undergraduate degrees at Pembroke College, Cambridge, receiving a BA in Philosophy and an MSci in History and Philosophy of Science.

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