Speaking of science, bioethics to be precise, consider this… December 17, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Science, Social Policy, Society.
A small country on the edge of Europe, a supposed leader in certain technologies, has a remarkably impoverished oversight regime in place as regards a raft of areas. Times are tough, but the issues that such oversight is necessary to address keep on coming up. Why, only some days previously a landmark case appears in the highest courts in the land which has significant implications for some citizens of the state.
The response of the government in this state? Shut down one of those oversight instruments.
And lo, it comes to pass, for as reported in the Irish Times today:
THE IRISH Council for Bioethics is to close at the end of this month after a decision by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to terminate its funding.
Its director, Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan, said the move was a retrograde step that would leave Ireland as the only EU country without an independent oversight body for bioethics.
And it’s not as if this is a simple talking shop, for as noted by O’Sullivan…
“You would really want to question the wisdom of shutting down such a body in light of the Supreme Court ruling this week,” she added, in a reference to Tuesday’s ruling on access to three frozen embryos.
The fact that Ireland does not have good regulatory controls on bioethical issues could hurt foreign investment in high-tech medical areas, Dr O’Sullivan said.
“No body will want to invest if there is no governance system. People do not want to invest without regulatory control and there is no regulation in this area.”
And as noted by the Supreme Court…
the failure to legislate in the area of fertility treatment as “disturbing”.
Dr O’Sullivan added: “We will be the only country without a council for bioethics.”
That may be an exaggeration, perhaps she means the only country in the EU…
So. How did this we reach this pretty pass?
Last April the department indicated to the group led by economist Colm McCarthy that savings could be achieved if the council was closed. The McCarthy report subsequently accepted that view in its report.
And it’s most illuminating to read the entry in Vol. II of the McCarthy Report on these matters:
A.2 Discontinuation of funding for the Irish Council for Bioethics
D/ET&E proposed a saving of €0.4m through discontinuing the funding of the Irish Council for Bioethics and this is accepted by the Special Group. The further issue of assigning some of its functions to the health sector would have to be considered, if necessary, by the Department of Health & Children within existing expenditure and staff resources.
‘If necessary’? Well, other states appear to believe that this sort of oversight is necessary and that it necessitates specific Councils. Why Ireland is sui generis is an open question – albeit note that the initiative came originally from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. But the paucity of any explicatory rationale by the McCarthy Report as to closing the Council is telling too.
The overall thrust of the Report argues that:
The Group has reached the conclusion that there should be radical rationalisation of the delivery of STI starting with the allocation of total responsibility to a single Government Department and the streaming of all funding through a single agency under that Department’s remit. Furthermore, all STI expenditure should be prioritised on the basis of likely commercial return over a 3 to 5 year period.
Rigorous targeting of STI will permit savings through the removal of duplication in both administration and research, the logical prioritisation of resources and the measurement of outputs and outcomes.
Which is all very fine. But when we arrive at a situation where there is an apparent gap between closure of the Council and any successor instrumentalities, either within or without this so far anonymous Government Department and ‘single agency’, then it would appear that far from the much trumpeted ‘reforms’ we’re sliding back, as in so many other areas (and the however nominal quid pro quo’s for Government supporting Independents is indicative of this dynamic too), to business as usual. I’ve heard anecdotal stuff that this is in part due to pressure from the socially conservative right, uneasy at developments. Perhaps true – who can say? But whatever the motivation it seems bizarre.
And that this happens at a time when bioethics issues are achieving a prominence never seen before isn’t merely an unfortunate coincidence but a central feature of how things will be from here on out. I’m not sure about others but I feel entirely uncomfortable, even uneasy, living in a state where such basic precautionary measures are not taken – and I speak as one who has personal experience of dealing with issues relating to bioethics… for better as it happens.