More plaudits for Where Science and Ethics Meet

The February edition of The Biochemist (magazine of the Biochemical Society) included another very positive review of our book Where Science and Ethics Meet: Dilemmas at the frontiers of medicine and biology. The review notes that “Willmott and Macip fulfil their promise of providing epistemologically balanced tools to the reader” and concludes that the book “certainly represents a valuable tool for teaching ethics at the undergraduate level and for engaging a wider audience in the challenges arising from scientific and biotechnical developments” which is gratifying since this was exactly our ambition in writing the book.


Another great review for “Where Science & Ethics Meet”

The February 2-8th 2017 Edition of Times Higher Education (number 2291) carried another enthusiastic review for Where Science and Ethics Meet.


“My brain made me do it”: are we ready for more Neurolaw?

I’m excited to say that my book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience is being published this week.

determinism cover

There are 5 chapters, in which I have attempted to pull together threads from moral philosophy, from law and from neuroscience to examine the growth of Neurolaw. Around the world, notably the USA and Italy, an increasing number of defendants are appealing to their genes or issues with the structure and function of their brain as mitigation for their crimes. To what extent should we allow this, now or in the future?

Chapter summaries:

  • Free will and determinism: an overview of some of the main schools of thought regarding the “free will problem” – Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism.
  • Existing legislation on mental disorders and criminal cases: automatism, criminal liability, diminished responsibility, “disease of the mind”, insanity, mens rea and M’Naghten.
  • Biological basis of behaviour: background on behavioural genetics and the use of various brain imaging techniques to investigate the extent to which our behaviour might be “hard wired”.
  • Use of genetic and neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases: a brief history of neurolaw. Summarises many of the key cases in which scientific evidence has been proffered by in criminal cases as (partial) justification of the behaviour of the defendant.
  • Are we ready for an expanded use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom?: In which I caution that the current use of genetic and brain physiology evidence is, at best, premature and uncertain.

Student-generated video as a means to teach bioethics

The second phase of my November tour has taken me to Naples, for the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics 9th World Conference on Bioethics, Medical Ethics and Health Law. I hope to find time to reflect more fully on the conference in the next few days.

In the meantime, I’ve provided a link to the slides from my presentation on the work we’ve been doing over the past six years, in which second year Medical Biochemists (and Medics) produce short videos about different aspects of biomedical ethics.

Headline Bioethics

I have mentioned the Headline Bioethics project here previously, including links to a poster I presented at the Leicester Teaching and Learning event (January 2013) and again at the  Higher Education Academy STEM conference (April 2013).

A paper giving more details about the task was published last week in the journal Bioscience Education. The abstract states:

An exercise is described in which second year undergraduate bioscientists write a reflective commentary on the ethical implications of a recent biological/biomedical news story of their own choosing. As well as being of more real-world relevance than writing in a traditional essay format, the commentaries also have potential utility in helping the broader community understand the issues raised by the reported innovations. By making the best examples available online, the task therefore has the additional benefit of allowing the students to be genuine producers of resources.

This is not, incidentally, to be confused with the other activity I’ve been doing with a different cohort of second year students in which they produce short films about bioethics (the paper on that subject is forthcoming).


One day in Alzira…

It seems that November is shaping up as a bit of a European tour for me. Trips later in the months to Naples and Edinburgh have been on the cards for a while, but my friend and colleague Salvador Macip and I ended up popped to Alzira, Spain on November 8th for 24 hours. This unusual behaviour was prompted by our success in winning the European Prize for the Popularization of Science.


This was the 19th year that the European Prize for the Popularization of Science has been awarded

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Teaching about “Ethics and Risk”

Back in March 2013, a group of intrepid bioethics education enthusiasts braved the snowy conditions to battle their way through to the University of Northampton for what proved to be a stimulating day [Conflict of Interest declaration: I organised the programme, but this was no guarantee that the day would turn out to be as interesting as it was!]

As has become the pattern for these annual HEA Special Interest in Teaching Ethics to Bioscientists events, the morning was given over to a couple of presentations to bring delegates up to speed on some of the latest developments in a particular aspect of bioethics. This year, the theme was “Ethics and Risk” and we were treated to two highly informative sessions. First up, Prof Alastair Hay from Leeds led us through some examples of the use of biological and chemical weapons which emphasised the importance of actively opposing their use.

Completing the morning session, Prof Joe Perry (formerly of Rothamsted Research) talked us through some of the regulatory processes employed by the European Union and other parts of the world in regard to genetically modified organisms, especially plants. Joe’s talk was particularly informed by his work with the European Food Safety Authority.

After a sumptuous lunch, there was a danger we might all nod off. However, this was not to be the case since Alastair Hay took over again, running a workshop to model how the issues of chemical and biological weapons can be used to illustrate various sliding scales relating to ethical and unethical practice, legal to illegal, necessary to dangerous activity, unquestionable to questionable, routine to innovative.

The day finished with the traditional series of short “swapshop” presentations by delegates. Barbara Cogdell (University of Glasgow) gave a short talk on their use of presentations with peer assessment in bioethics teaching.

Following this, Lyndsey Wright (University of Leicester) introduced a set of resources for teaching about ethical aspects of epigenetics.

Finally, Merryn Ekberg shared some reflections on biorisk and bioethics. However, the slides for this presentation are currently embargoed whilst the session is being further developed for publication.