Qualitative Health Research Network


Dr Simon Woods

Whose ethics? Reflections on the nature of ethical scrutiny of health related social science research

Dr Simon Woods is Co-Director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre (PEALS) at Newcastle University.

Date and venue

  • 12 July 2017, 3-4 pm
  • UCL Bloomsbury Campus, Wilkins Garden Room, Bernard Katz Building, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT
  • Coffee, biscuits and an informal chat with the speaker from 2.30pm

Register your attendance

Attendance is free, but please register your place via Eventbrite.

About the seminar

As the title suggests, this talk will be a critical reflection upon the question 'whose ethics?' and Dr Woods will be taking the opportunity to explore some of the abiding issues of the ethics of research.  The focus of the reflection will be from two perspectives; the external perspective and the internal perspective. By 'perspective' Dr Woods means the possible positions one may adopt when trying to consider how the ethical scrutiny of health related social science research ought to be conducted. Taking the external perspective first then this may be characterised in terms of the civic responsibility to establish a well-founded procedural process in which a research proposal can be subjected to meticulous critical scrutiny by a suitably constituted bureaucracy, efficient, objective and fair. The system of research ethics committees established by the Department of Health and overseen by the Health Research Authority might well fit the part. 'Whose ethics' therefore means our ethics an ethics that is in the public interest to protect the vulnerable and facilitate ethical research. However prominent critics have argued that such systems are 'fundamentally wrong because the damage it inflicts on a democratic society far exceeds any harm that HSS (Humanities and Social Science) research is capable of causing the individual' (Dingwall 1:2008). For Dingwall our ethics also pertain to the public interest and the common good which flows from certain freedoms, of speech and of academic freedom. So if the external perspective is to be rejected then plausibly we are left with the internal perspective, the idea that it is the practices of the 'practitioners' themselves who are the best judges of ethical research. This may not be quite the 'wild west' of governance it at first seems. Researchers learn how to become researchers, they develop competencies of practice from within cultures of practice where they are open to the scrutiny of peers. But who has a say within this community? Is not the internal perspective as open to challenge as the external. Health related social science research requires human participants. What is their stake in the process? The final part of the talk will consider the possible ways in which these two perspectives might begin to be reconciled. However this will not ultimately be a talk of solutions but an invitation to trouble the context still further in the (hopefully) lively ensuing discussion.   

About the speaker

Dr Woods is a philosopher who works in bioethics, medical ethics and social philosophy. His early career was as a cancer nurse where his work as the manager of a regional Adult Leukaemia and Bone-marrow Transplant unit provoked his interest in ethical issues such as end of life decisions, clinical research and the relationship between patients, families and health-professionals. Over the next few years he pursued his developing research interests in end of life and palliative care, professional communication and clinical ethics as a Macmillan lecturer at Liverpool University. During this time he researched his PhD which addressed the social and ethical implications of the concept of 'quality of life' as applied to healthcare. His first academic position at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy at Manchester University focused on the delivery of clinical ethics education for health professionals within the North-West of England as well as conducting international research on the values of Palliative care in Europe as a member of the PALLIUM Project. Dr Woods joined PEALS in 2003 as a Senior Lecturer and Co-Director. Since joining PEALS his research interests have expanded to include medical technology, genomics, and 'Big Data' for health care but he continues to have a strong interest in research ethics, end of life issues and the patient experience.