Take the Ethics Train

How, if at all, should genetic information be disclosed to doctors, patients, and even insurance companies? Should embryonic stem cell research be banned altogether? What laws should exist to protect the rights of people in developing countries when they become the subjects of Western research? Young scientists who have been formally trained in ethics are needed if these important questions are to be answered in the future. The Wellcome Trust is involved in shaping this new crop of scientists through its Biomedical Ethics Programme, which has just been extended for a further 6 years.

If it is sometimes all too easy for scientists to focus on their research without reflecting on its repercussions, it is never long before the public reminds them of the ethical issues and consequences for society. Bella Starling, biomedical ethics programme officer at the Wellcome Trust, explains: "Responsible science needs to address the societal, ethical, and policy consequences of its outcomes." Yet far too often scientists "are not given any formal training in ethics" during their undergraduate years. As Alastair Campbell of the Centre for Ethics in Medicine in Bristol and supervisor of a Wellcome Trust student puts it, "We desperately need a fully trained cadre of young academics" to fulfil the needs of biomedical ethics, "an expanding field."

The Wellcome Trust Biomedical Ethics Programme is designed not only to provide such experts but also to create new evidence and ways of thinking that may impact public debate and policy-making in the future. The programme offers Ph.D. studentships and postdoctoral fellowships in the United Kingdom. Ph.D. studentships for young scientists from developing countries are also awarded in order to increase the knowledge base and research capacity there. Research in developing countries throws up unique ethical questions that are often complicated further by local cultural, economic, and religious factors.

The awards, which can last up to 3 years, offer a Ph.D. stipend starting at £13,500 or a postdoc fellowship starting at £23,745, plus London weighting. An extra £1000 is available for travel, workshops, or courses, and students can request additional expenses if and when they see fit. For developing country-based applications, all travel costs will be covered.

As a Ph.D. student in the Biomedical Ethics Programme, Jennifer Bostock examined some of the ethical issues surrounding the use of genetic information in forensic psychiatry. "I was particularly impressed with the support I gained from the trust," she says. "Not only did I have the use of their facilities and receive generous financial support from them, but I always felt that the trust had a genuine interest [in] and enthusiasm for my work." Bostock herself came from a background in philosophy and psychiatry, but she thinks that although it "may be harder for scientists to come to ethics than for ethicists to understand the scientific issues, it has been done, and the Wellcome Trust are really encouraging it."

Whereas students in the United Kingdom will normally have one supervisor, students in developing countries should have two, with at least one having local knowledge of the country where the research is taking place. The trust itself also plays an important role in training the students by "organising meetings and courses and encouraging interaction between students and staff," says Bostock.

Biomedical ethics may well, as Starling says, be an "exciting field" heaving with "complex issues," but once you've had your training, what can you do next? "Many biomedical ethicists hold academic posts and enjoy researching the intricacies of delicate issues," says Starling. But biomedical ethicists can also become members of research ethics committees or find work advising the government or biotechnology companies on policy and conduct. Bostock feels that the trust encourages open-mindedness regarding jobs outside academia by providing extremely supportive career guidance and promoting links with the arts, media, and drama. The Wellcome Trust "opened doors for me that would otherwise have remained closed had I been supported by any other funding body," explains Bostock, now a freelance science writer and playwright.

To apply, you will need an upper second degree or a Ph.D. in any scientific discipline or in humanities, law, or the social sciences. The Wellcome Trust stresses that you may apply from a pure science background, even for a postdoctoral position, but they advise that in this case you choose a supervisor with experience in ethics. You must pick a research area that explores ethical, legal, social, or public policy aspects of developments in the biomedical sciences. Although when the programme started in 1997 proposals had to be based on ethics in neurology or genetics, new areas such as stem cell research and reproductive medicine are now being considered too.

You must complete a preliminary application form for projects in the U.K. or for international Ph.D.s, consisting of a one-page proposal summary, your CV, an approximate budget, and a letter of support from the potential supervisor. This primary application is used to determine whether the proposal and applicant are eligible, and if so you will receive a full application form requiring further elaboration of the proposal as well as references.

The Wellcome Trust emphasises that, due to the limited number of offers, competition is intense. The panel of judges will pick out applications presenting the best "intellectual challenge," rigorous methodology, applicability to current debate, and relevance to published research. Preference is also given to candidates who intend to pursue a career in biomedical ethics. All that is left to provide is "a thirst for knowledge, and enthusiasm," says Starling.

For more information on the BioMedical Ethics Programme, you may click on the Wellcome Trust Web site, send an e-mail, or call +44 (0) 20 7611 8231.

Preliminary applications must be submitted a minimum of 2 months before the deadline for full applications, which is annually on 1 May for U.K. studentships and 1 March for U.K. fellowships and developing-country studentships.

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