Doing bioethics: (How) should we engage with those we critique?

Jane Williams1, Christopher Mayes1, Wendy Lipworth1

1 Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, Medical Foundation Building (K25) University of Sydney, NSW 2006 Australia

Successful research is increasingly characterised as that which has ‘impact’, engages with stakeholders, and informs policy and practice. However policymakers can be slow to respond to evidence and practitioners can be hostile to recommendations. These problems may be greater for bioethicists as our work often adds further nuance to already complex issues and may involve critiques of those whose engagement is sought. At best, our work tends to be viewed as peripheral in the eyes of policymakers and practitioners and it can be difficult to even find a voice in “real world” debates. In this workshop, we will generate discussion about the challenges faced by bioethicists who want to both critique current practice and influence policy and practice. We will begin by describing our attempts to engage with the Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) industry on our work in conflicts of interest (COI). Following recent media focus on perceived COI in ART in Australia, we wrote a paper which called for debate and set out clear parameters for deliberation. Response from reviewers was positive yet the paper remains unpublished, ostensibly because it lacks “primary source evidence”.  There was also acknowledgement of the controversial nature of the topic and potential to alienate their professional readers.

We will use this experience to prompt group discussion, asking:

  • Should bioethicists strive to engage with stakeholders and influence policy and practice? If so, how?
    • How can bioethics research most effectively find its voice?
    • How can different conceptions of evidence be negotiated?
  • More generally, what do concepts like ‘impact’, ‘significance’, ‘innovation’ ‘engagement’, and ‘translation’ mean in the context of bioethical scholarship?

We will ask audience members to reflect upon and share their own experiences of “doing bioethics” with a view to informing policy and practice.


Ms Williams is a final year PhD student at the Centre for Values, Ethics, and the Law in Medicine (VELiM). She is working on the ethics of cancer screening, and conflicts of interest in medicine.

Dr Mayes is a post-doctoral researcher at VELiM. His areas of work include conflicts of interest in medicine, continental philosophy, and food ethics.

Dr Lipworth is a senior research fellow at VELiM. She works on conflicts of interest in medicine, the ethics of biobanking, and the ethics of drug development.

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