Originally I studied mathematics as an undergraduate at Cambridge University until I discovered that I was more interested in the philosophical foundations of mathematics and the sciences, and switched into history and philosophy of science. I continued into a doctorate in this area, still at Cambridge, where after a lot of huffing and puffing and storm and stress I wrote a thesis on ethics in the sciences. I was – and am – interested in the way ethics is part of the work that scientists do, rather than just being tacked on ad hoc when scientific discoveries or technologies make their way into social use or political debate.
Following my PhD I made a sideways move into thinking about the ethics of medical research. I’ve worked in a philosophy department (at Liverpool), medical schools (at Bristol, Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London) and now I teach in a Law School (at Queen Mary again). Most of my work nowadays is on ethical issues in public health, but I still do some work on ethics in medical research and I have a developing interest in mental health and learning disabilities.
I have two long term projects, which most of my funded research and publications inform in some way or another. I want to talk about these in my week as curator, both because they are interesting (I think!) and because they illustrate something important about the public role of the humanities.
The first is on the relationship between bioethics and human right. Human rights are the heart of political debates both locally in the UK and in the international arena, and the relationship between the ideals and practical realities of human rights, and the idea of ethics as somehow beyond and superior to politics, is complicated and challenging. The humanities contribute to this debate in various ways, through spelling out various ways of being human, to challenging our theoretical ideas about what human rights are and should be, and thinking about what it would be like to like ethically and in an ethical society.
The second, following on from this, is about the idea of utopian bioethics. In a common-or-garden sense, bioethics is “Utopian” in imagining that human affairs – especially business and politics – could be regulated by ethics. A grander idea is that bioethics involves – whether it can admit this to itself or not – thinking in a Utopian way about human desires and hopes, as shown through our what we want our technologies to do for us, and how through technology we want ourselves and our societies to be.
I’ll confess a secret: much of my field bores me. We’re doing it wrong. We’ve got worn-out tools, stereotyped ideas, and bad habits. I am trying to reengineer the field from the inside: not altogether successfully, but maybe I can inspire others to do a better job.
When I am not trying to rethink bioethics I spend my time failing to manage my work-life balance (like, who gets that right?). Family comes first. I may well say more about that this week. If provoked. The world is quite provocative, I find. I listen to lots of music, all kinds (though I get defeated by most pop music after about 2005). I read and read – mainly science fiction, but modern poetry and other kinds of fiction and history as well. I am a fairly constant tweeter, @qmulbioethics.