Ethics and expertise in times of crisis: takeaways from the Advisory Board meeting

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The ESRC-funded “Ethics and Expertise” project has been progressing through its early planning stages. In July 2023, researchers from participating institutions, including the Universities of Birmingham, Bielefeld, Sheffield, Melbourne, Karlshochschule International University and Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB), had the first meeting with the project’s Advisory Board. The role of the Board is to provide feedback on the overall progress, academic direction and policy relevance of the project. Some members of the Board have experience of serving or having served on ethics committees, including the UK Covid Inquiry Every Story Matters ethics advisory group, the UK Moral and Ethics Advisory Group (MEAG), NCOB and the Austrian Bioethics Commission. This experience makes members of the Board well-placed to advise on the case studies, identify policy and public benefit of the project, and disseminate research findings to key audiences. 

Reflecting on project set up 

The discussion with the Advisory Board raised a range of productive questions about the project’s set-up and foundational assumptions. Firstly, some Board members highlighted the need to clarify the current definition of “ethics” and what counts as ethics. Currently, we define ethical expertise as the interlinkage of both epistemic claims about the validity of certain knowledge and evaluative claims about the relevance and legitimacy of certain values and norms for political decisions. Yet, as the project progresses, we will note varieties of what is perceived as ‘ethics’ in the advice provided to governments. The project team will review existing dialogical definitions of ethics that can be useful to offer a more participatory and pluralist approach to ethics, in contrast to ethics based on foundational principles. A more comprehensive understanding of ethics is key, given the lack of public appreciation of the need to navigate ethics more complexly.  

The Board members also noted the need to reflect on the link between ethics and crisis, particularly in relation to how ethical advice is used. Firstly, the team will consider the nature of crises, including thinking about what constitutes a crisis or how different crises interact. Secondly, this link between ethics and crisis is instrumental in understanding the role values play in the effectiveness of public policy. The project will navigate the complexity of values already embedded in policymaking during a crisis and how these values are explained and communicated.  

Methodological choices and contextual varieties 

The project will consider how ethical advice is used, not just given. Yet, the researchers and the Board also recognised the difficulty of determining the effectiveness of ethical advice. Witness seminars will be instrumental in investigating how ethical advice has been used during the Covid-19 public health crisis and in identifying key barriers to the perceived ‘usefulness’ of ethics advice in policy. 

The contextual varieties of ethical advice will also play an important role in the project. The three case studies – UK, Germany, and Australia – will not represent all the varieties of ethics advice and the project. Therefore, it is instrumental to historicise these cases and situate epistemic claims geographically. As part of this, the research will explore plural and distinct ecosystems of ethical advice , considering networks across local, regional and developed territories. Responding to these complexities will affect the generalisability of the cases. Yet the project will aim to provide learnings from the three countries that can be translated across different contexts and types of crisis.

Members of the Board also helped to refine methodological decisions, leading to important clarifications on how the institutional mapping and witness seminars will be organised. As a result of these discussions, the research team will ensure to recognise the relations between institutions, components of advisory systems and other elements that will affect the typology of institutions developed in the pilot research. 

Next steps

The members of the Board will stay involved with the project throughout the year in varying capacities ahead of the next Advisory Board meeting that will take place in July 2024. By then, the “Ethics & Expertise” research team will have collected a large segment of the data, including network mapping, a national witness seminar, and some documentary analysis. 

Over the next six months, the research team will analyse literature on ethical advice and gather relevant documents. It will also carry out interviews with key stakeholders on the ethical advice. These interviews will help understand how ethical advice could be best incorporated into government decision making systems. In spring 2024, the first witness seminar will take place in the UK. The purpose of the witness seminar is to understand when issues become ethical and how ethical advice was provided during Covid-19 public health crisis. 

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