A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Author: Pär Segerdahl (Page 3 of 39)

Data for gender equality in European research organizations

Inequality is not just a bad feeling that some may have, but a bad reality that we share. Especially in countries where gender equality work is not well established, it is important that inequality is not handled as a contested issue, but as a fact about which more knowledge should be sought. Who has the power over the criteria for what a successful researcher is and who has a better chance of succeeding? Which structures undermine or support gender equality? What does childcare look like? Are the research teams homogeneous and how does that affect the work? Where do women end up in the author order in scientific publications and where do they end up in the competition for research funds? Are there mechanisms and values in science that systematically make inequality invisible and prevent equality?

There is a will in the EU to improve gender equality in research organizations, especially in some of the Member States where gender equality work is particularly neglected. How can the necessary changes be brought about? In Sweden, all state universities are commissioned to collect data on (in)equality. Under the slogan “No data: No policies!” an EU project presents its approach to gender equality plans. The project, MINDtheGEPs, develops and implements gender equality plans in a collaboration between 7 European research organizations in 5 countries: Spain, Poland, Ireland, Italy and Serbia. The focus is on changing the organizations structurally and culturally and increasing women’s participation in research and innovation. The project is coordinated from the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Turin. The work is supported by a further 4 organizations: the publishing house Elsevier in the Netherlands, the research organization Knowledge & Innovation in Italy, the National Research Council of Italy, and by the Centre for Research & Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University, which leads the communication work.

In the participating countries, there is a lack of sufficient data on factors behind equality and inequality, which means that those who suffer from inequality also suffer from not being seen. Therefore, it is important to carry out studies that map the problems. If the studies are also carried out in one’s own organization and one contributes to producing the data, this can further contribute to making the problems visible and motivating change. Therefore, the organizations in MINDtheGEPs collect data together to develop, adapt and support interventions at the local level. Behind the approach is a reasonable idea: if you cannot provide evidence of inequality, you will not get support to remedy the problems either. The project thus collects data on existing legislation and policy in the 5 countries, as well as data on the proportion of women in governing bodies at different levels, on the proportion of women who apply for and receive research support in competition, as well as data on the existence of gender equality measures. Surveys and interview studies are also carried out with researchers, administrative staff, rectors and vice rectors, department directors and other relevant actors. This large data collection and analysis is the basis for the 7 gender equality plans that are developed and implemented in MINDtheGEPs. Here you will find a presentation of the data collection.

If you want a summary of the work with evidence-based equality plans, you can read this policy brief from the project: No data: No policies! The MINDtheGEP’s approach to evidence-based policies for Gender Equality Plans. The document gives a brief account of structural and cultural measures that are recommended on the basis of the studies in various areas. It is about balance in recruitment and career progression and about balance between work and private life. It is about making gender equality issues visible in research and teaching, for example through courses that highlight gender as an important dimension in these activities. Finally, it is about changing the work in decision making bodies so that more women can reach higher positions within research organizations in the countries in the project collaboration.

The approach in MINDtheGEPs can probably inspire other organizations in addition to those included in the project, even organizations that do not work with research. This is also a thought behind the project. The hope is that the work of developing and implementing gender equality plans in a number of research organizations will influence the rest of society. Without data, gender inequality risks being made invisible as a bad feeling.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Solera, Cristina, Balzano, Angela, Turco, Federica, Pisacane, Lucio, & Fernow, Josepine. (2023). No data: No policies! The MINDtheGEPs approach to evidence-based policies for Gender Equality Plans. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7785413

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We want solid foundations

Precision medicine algorithms and personal encounters

The characters in Franz Kafka’s novels go astray in the corridors of bureaucracy. Impersonal officials handle never-defined cases as if they were robots controlled by algorithms as obscure as they are relentless. Judgments are passed without the convicted receiving any comprehensible information about possible charges.

Please excuse this dramatic introduction, which, in a perhaps slightly extreme way, is only intended to highlight a point in an article about precision medicine. Namely, the importance of placing the methods of precision medicine within the framework of the meeting between patient and physician: the importance of “personalizing” precision medicine.

Precision medicine is the name for methods to optimize disease management on the basis of the patient’s individual genetic profile. A bit like in a dating app that is meant to identify the best potential partner for you. Algorithms are used to calculate how patients with different genetic variants are likely to respond to drug treatments for some disease. There are advantages to this. The most effective and safe treatment for the patient in question can be identified. It also means that you can avoid treatments from which a patient with a certain genetic profile has very serious side effects. Or from which the patient is unlikely to get any positive effect, but would only suffer the side effects.

Together with several co-authors, Åsa Grauman at CRB recently published an interview study on precision medicine. Patients with a form of blood cancer (AML) in Finland, Italy and Germany were interviewed about how they viewed precision medicine, and about their preferences for being involved in this new way of making treatment decisions. Something I found interesting was that several (not all) participants wanted and valued information, but not for the purpose of making decisions. They wanted information to prepare themselves mentally, to know what to expect and to understand why different measures were being taken. They wanted information to be able to make the transition to being patients, I would like to say.

Almost all participants were unfamiliar with precision medicine. When the interviewer described the concept to them, most of them felt that precision medicine made sense and they were hopeful that the methods could be useful in the future. For example, to avoid unnecessary treatments with severe side effects in patients with a certain genetic profile. But even if the participants had faith in the algorithms that may be used in precision medicine, they emphasized that the algorithms are only a tool for the physician. They said that the physician can see the human side of the patient and the disease, and that the physician should be able to go against the algorithm depending on factors in the patient other than those included in the algorithm. The algorithm must not replace the physician or run over the patient. Many participants thus seemed to hold the view that difficult treatment decisions can be left to the physician, if the physician has listened to both the algorithm and the patient. Participants also highlighted the problem of not fitting into the algorithm: being denied treatment because the algorithm does not consider one to be the right patient for the available treatment options.

In their discussion, the authors highlighted a particularly interesting aspect of the situation of making treatment decisions. Namely, that the patient can weigh benefits and risks differently than both the physician and the algorithm. Incorporating the patient’s own trade-offs is therefore fundamental, they write, for precision medicine to be considered personalized care. Read the thought-provoking interview study here: Personalizing precision medicine: Patients with AML perceptions about treatment decisions.

To summarize, one could say that patients need to meet not only their algorithmically optimized treatment. In order to understand and influence their situation as patients, they above all need to meet their physician. Even if the patients feel that the decisions are too difficult and are positive to the possibilities of precision medicine, they want to talk to the physician and they want their meeting to influence the decisions. Perhaps treatment in an important sense begins even before the treatment decision is made, when the patient first meets the physician and they begin to find their way together through the hospital corridors. Corresponding meaningful encounters were never experienced by the characters in Kafka’s novels.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Åsa Grauman, Mika Kontro, Karl Haller, et al. Personalizing precision medicine: Patients with AML perceptions about treatment decisions. Patient Education and Counseling 115, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2023.107883

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In dialogue with patients

Philosophically anchored psychotherapy

Philosophy is often regarded as impractical and useless. At the same time, philosophy has a therapeutic aspect. Socrates practiced philosophy with people he met in Athens. He tried to persuade them to care not only about their bodies, their money and the affairs of the state, but to also examine themselves and take care of their soul. The same can be said of the Stoics, who emphasized that philosophy must be put into practice and actually change our ways of life. They gave public inspirational speeches about the importance of bringing order to our chaotic souls and they talked to people about how we can live completely fulfilling lives. How impractical and useless is that?

Both Socrates’ art of conversation and the life advice of the Stoics have inspired the emergence of cognitive behavioral therapies. In recent times, Asian philosophy and meditation have also inspired psychotherapy in the form of so-called mindfulness, used as a method to manage stress, anxiety and pain. However, there is a tendency to gloss over the philosophical influence behind these methods, as if philosophy were something impractical and useless! There is a risk that, in an effort to present a clinically effective facade, one covers up the philosophical depth, while the problems one tries to treat are often connected with superficial hopes for quick and effective solutions.

Can today’s psychotherapies more openly and directly draw inspiration from philosophy? Are there already such bridges to philosophy that can be strengthened? If so, what distinguishes them? These questions are investigated by Sylvia Martin, researcher at CRB and a practicing psychotherapist herself. In a review article, she focuses on work with values in various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy as a bridge to philosophy that could be strengthened. I will give an example from the article of such work, which suggests how patients can be supported to find a more stable and fulfilling attitude to life.

Many people seek meaning in life through various objectives and projects, which they then try to realize. They believe that happiness will only come if they get to travel to Beijing, find a new job, buy a house or get a dog. Objectives do not provide stable meaning and fulfillment. On the contrary. The satisfaction when objectives are realized is short-lived and soon turns into a feeling of emptiness that must be filled by new exciting projects. There is of course nothing wrong with travel, jobs, houses or dogs, but when chasing new objectives becomes a pattern it can be unfortunate. Soon a whole life is filled with objectives that do not give the stable fulfillment that one is really longing for. The pattern of seeking new objectives and projects that will give meaning and satisfaction becomes a self-destructive lifestyle, which it eventually becomes difficult to get out of. But through therapy, people can be helped to see the unfortunate pattern. For example, they can be given the task of imagining the objective of “traveling to Beijing”: how they save money for the trip, learn Chinese and plan the trip. They can imagine all the fun they have in Beijing. But how does it feel to come home again? To come home is to return to meaninglessness and immediately the same old emptiness must be filled by a new project. Values such as compassion and truth differ from objectives by being more like a road that never ends. Values can be cultivated and deepened without end. The path becomes the destination, fulfillment lies in walking it, and the elusive notion of “finally finding fulfillment” dissolves. But all of this of course assumes that the therapy is not perceived as a “trip to Beijing” that will finally bring fulfillment. There are no easy solutions to the problem of a meaningless life, such as new trips, new jobs, new houses… or new therapies.

Philosophically anchored psychotherapy can contribute to the deepening required, so that the work with values does not become another project that reinforces superficial attitudes to life. Perhaps the impression that philosophy is impractical and useless is even related to the restless attitude that a meaningful life requires objectives to be effectively realized? Philosophy is not a project, but more like a lifelong path. Read Sylvia Martin’s review article here: Using values in cognitive and behavioral therapy: a bridge back to philosophy.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Martin, S. Using values in cognitive and behavioral therapy: a bridge back to philosophy. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. 2023; 1- 7. doi:10.1111/jep.13872

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We challenge habits of thought

Using artificial intelligence with academic integrity

AI tools can both transform and produce content such as texts, images and music. The tools are also increasingly available as online services. One example is the ChatGPT tool, which you can ask questions and get well-informed, logically reasoned answers from. Answers that the tool can correct if you point out errors and ambiguities. You can interact with the tool almost as if you were conversing with a human.

Such a tool can of course be very useful. It can help you solve problems and find relevant information. I venture to guess that the response from the tool can also stimulate creativity and open the mind to unexpected possibilities, just as conversations with people tend to do. However, like all technology, these tools can also be abused and students have already used ChatGPT to complete their assignments.

The challenge in education and research is thus to learn to use these AI tools with academic integrity. Using AI tools is not automatically cheating. Seven participants in a European network for academic integrity (ENAI), including Sonja Bjelobaba at CRB, write about the challenge in an editorial in International Journal for Educational Integrity. Above all, the authors summarize tentative recommendations from ENAI on the ethical use of AI in academia.

An overarching aim in the recommendations is to integrate recommendations on AI with other related recommendations on academic integrity. Thus, all persons, sources and tools that influenced ideas or generated content must be clearly acknowledged – including the use of AI tools. Appropriate use of tools that affect the form of the text (such as proofreading tools, spelling checkers and thesaurus) are generally acceptable. Furthermore, an AI tool cannot be listed as a co-author in a publication, as the tool cannot take responsibility for the content.

The recommendations also emphasize the importance of educational efforts on the ethical use of AI tools. Read the recommendations in their entirety here: ENAI Recommendations on the ethical use of Artificial Intelligence in Education.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Foltynek, T., Bjelobaba, S., Glendinning, I. et al. ENAI Recommendations on the ethical use of Artificial Intelligence in Education. International Journal for Educational Integrity 19, 12 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-023-00133-4

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We care about education

Encourage children to take responsibility for others?

It happens that academics write visionary texts that highlight great human challenges. I blogged about such a philosophically visionary article a few years ago; an article in which Kathinka Evers discussed the interaction between society and the brain. In the article, she developed the idea that we have a “proactive” responsibility to adapt our societies to what we know about the brain’s strengths and weaknesses. Above all, she emphasized that the knowledge we have today about the changeability of the brain gives us a proactive responsibility for our own human nature, as this nature is shaped and reshaped in interaction with the societies we build.

Today I want to recommend a visionary philosophical article by Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, an article that I think has points of contact with Kathinka Evers’ paper. Here, too, the article highlights our responsibility for major human challenges, such as climate and, above all, public health. Here, too, human changeability is emphasized, not least during childhood. Here, too, it is argued that we have a responsibility to be proactive (although the term is not used). But where Kathinka Evers starts from neuroscience, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist starts from virtue ethics and from social sciences that see children as social actors.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist points out that we live in more complex societies and face greater global challenges than ever before in human history. But humans are also complex and can under favorable circumstances develop great capacities for taking responsibility. Virtue ethics has this focus on the human being and on personal character traits that can be cultivated and developed to varying degrees. Virtue ethics is sometimes criticized for not being sufficiently action-guiding. But it is hard to imagine that we can deal with major human challenges through action-guiding rules and regulations alone. Rules are never as complex as human beings. Action-guiding rules assume that the challenges are already under some sort of control and thus are not as uncertain anymore. Faced with complex challenges with great uncertainties, we may have to learn to trust the human being. Do we dare to trust ourselves when we often created the problems?

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist reasons in a way that brings to mind Kathinka Evers’ idea of a proactive responsibility for our societies and our human nature. Nihlén Fahlquist suggests, if I understand her correctly, that we already have a responsibility to create environments that support the development of human character traits that in the future can help us meet the challenges. We already have a responsibility to support greater abilities to take responsibility in the future, one could say.

Nihlén Fahlquist focuses on public health challenges and her reasoning is based on the pandemic and the issue of vaccination of children. Parents have a right and a duty to protect their children from risks. But reasonably, parents can also be considered obliged not to be overprotective, but also to consider the child’s development of agency and values. The virus that spread during the pandemic did not cause severe symptoms in children. Vaccination therefore does not significantly protect the child’s own health, but would be done with others in mind. Studies show that children may be capable of reasoning in terms of such responsibility for others. Children who participate in medical research can, for example, answer that they participate partly to help others. Do we dare to encourage capable children to take responsibility for public health by letting them reason about their own vaccination? Is it even the case that we should support children to cultivate such responsibility as a virtue?

Nihlén Fahlquist does not claim that children themselves have this responsibility to get vaccinated out of solidarity with others. But if some children prove to be able to reason in such a morally complex way about their own vaccination, one could say that these children’s sense of responsibility is something unexpected and admirable, something that we cannot demand from a child. By encouraging and supporting the unexpected and admirable in children, it can eventually become an expected responsibility in adults, suggests Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist. Virtue ethics makes it meaningful to think in terms of such possibilities, where humans can change and their virtues can grow. Do we dare to believe in such possibilities in ourselves? If you do not expect the unexpected you will not discover it, said a visionary Greek philosopher named Heraclitus.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist’s article is multifaceted and innovative. In this post, I have only emphasized one of her lines of thought, which I hope has made you curious about an urgent academic text: Taking risks to protect others – pediatric vaccination and moral responsibility.

In summary, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist argues that vaccination should be regarded as an opportunity for children to develop their sense of responsibility and that parents, schools, healthcare professionals and public health authorities should include children in debates about ethical public health issues.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, Taking Risks to Protect Others – Pediatric Vaccination and Moral Responsibility, Public Health Ethics, 2023;, phad005, https://doi.org/10.1093/phe/phad005

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Approaching future issues

When ordinary words get scientific uses

A few weeks ago, Josepine Fernow wrote an urgent blog post about science and language. She linked to a research debate about conceptual challenges for neuroscience, challenges that arise when ordinary words get specialized uses in science as technically defined terms.

In the case under debate, the word “sentience” had been imported into the scientific study of the brain. A research group reported that they were able to determine that in vitro neurons from humans and mice have learning abilities and that they exhibit “sentience” in a simulated game world. Of course, it caused quite a stir that some neurons grown in a laboratory could exhibit sentience! But the research team did not mean what attracted attention. They meant something very technical that only a specialist in the field can understand. The surprising thing about the finding was therefore the choice of words.

When the startling choice of words was questioned by other researchers, the research team defended themselves by saying that they defined the term “sentience” strictly scientifically, so that everyone should have understood what they meant, at least the colleagues in the field. Well, not all people are specialists in the relevant field. Thus the discovery – whatever it was that was discovered – raised a stir among people as if it were a discovery of sentience in neurons grown in a laboratory.

The research group’s attitude towards their own technical language is similar to an attitude I encountered long ago in a famous theorist of language, Noam Chomsky. This is what Chomsky said about the scientific study of the nature of language: “every serious approach to the study of language departs from the common-sense usage, replacing it by some technical concept.” Chomsky is of course right that linguistics defines its own technical concepts of language. But one can sense a certain hubris in the statement, because it sounds as if only a linguistic theorist could understand “language” in a way that is worthy of serious attention. This is untenable, because it raises the question what a technical concept of language is. In what sense is a technical concept a concept of language? Is it a technical concept of language in the common sense? Or is it a technical concept of language in the same inaccessible sense? In the latter case, the serious study of language seems to degenerate into a navel-gazing that does not access language.

For a technical concept of language to be a concept of language, our ordinary notions must be taken into account. Otherwise, the technical concept ceases to be a concept of language.

This is perhaps something to consider in neuroscience as well. Namely to the extent that one wants to shed light on phenomena such as consciousness and sentience. Of course, neuroscience will define its own technical concepts of these phenomena, as in the debated case. But if the technical concepts are to function as concepts of consciousness and sentience, then one cannot neglect our ordinary uses of words.

Science is very serious and important. But if the special significance of science goes to our heads, then our attitude risks undermining the great importance of science for humanity. Here you can read the views of three neuroethicists on these important linguistic issues: Conceptual conundrums for neuroscience.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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Minding our language

Resolving conflicts where they arise

I believe that many of us feel that the climate of human conversation is getting colder, that it is becoming harder for us to talk and get along with each other. Humanity feels colder than in a long time. At the same time, the global challenges are escalating. The meteorological signs speak for a warmer planet, while people speak a colder language. It should be the other way around. To cool the planet down, humanity should first get warmer.

How can humanity get warmer? How can we deal with the conflicts that make our human climate resemble a cold war on several fronts: between nations, between rich and poor, between women and men, and so on?

Observe what happens within ourselves when the question is asked and demands its answer. We immediately turn our attention to the world and to the actions we think could solve the problem there. A world government? Globally binding legislation? A common human language in a worldwide classless society that does not distinguish between woman and man, between skin colors, between friend and stranger?

Notice again what happens within ourselves when we analyze the question, either in this universalist way or in some other way. We create new conflicts between ourselves as analysts and the world where the problems are assumed to arise. The question itself is a conflict. It incriminates a world that must necessarily change. This creates new areas of conflict between people who argue for conflicting analyses and measures. One peace movement will fight another peace movement, and those who do not take the necessary stand on these enormous issues… well, how should we handle them?

Observe for the third time what happens within ourselves when we have now twice in a row directed our attention towards ourselves. First, we noted our inner tendency to react outwardly. Then we noted how this extroverted tendency created new conflicts not only between ourselves and an incriminated world that must change, but also between ourselves and other people with other analyses of an incriminated world that must change. What do we see, then, when we observe ourselves for the third time?

We see how we look for the source of all conflict everywhere but within ourselves. Even when we incriminate ourselves, we speak as if we were someone other than the one analyzing the problem and demanding action (“I should learn to shut up”). Do you see the extroverted pattern within you? It is like a mental elbow that pushes away a problematic world. Do you see how the conflicts arise within ourselves, through this constant outward reactivity? We think we take responsibility for the world around us, but we are only projecting our mental reflexes.

There was once a philosopher named Socrates. He was likened to an electric ray as he seemed to numb those he was talking to with his unexpected questions, so that they could no longer react with worldly analyses and sharp-witted arguments. He was careful to point out that he himself was equally numbed. He saw the extroverted tendency within himself. Every time he saw it, he became silent and motionless. Sometimes he could stand for hours on a street corner. He saw the source of all conflict in the human mind that always thinks it knows, that always thinks it has the analysis and all the arguments. He called this inner numbness his wisdom and he described it like this: “what I do not know, I do not think I know either.”

Naturally, a philosopher thus numbed could not harbor any conflict, because the moment it began to take shape, he would note the tendency within himself and be numbed. He mastered the art of resolving conflicts where they arise: within ourselves. Free from the will to change an incriminated world, he would thereby have revolutionized everything.

Socrates’ wisdom may seem too simple for the complex problems of our time. But given our three observations of how all conflict arises in the human mind, you see how we ourselves are the origin of all complexity. This simple wisdom can warm a humanity that has forgotten to examine itself.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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We care about communication

Does the severity of an illness qualify the moral motivation to act?

I have to admit that I had a little trouble cracking the code in the article which I will now try to summarize briefly. I hope that the title I have chosen is not already a misunderstanding. Moral philosophy is not easy, but the subject of the article is urgent so I still want to try.

Illness is generally perceived as something bad, as an evil. If we are to speak in terms of value, we can say that illness has negative value. Individual cases of illness usually create a moral motivation in us to mitigate the ill person’s negative condition. How strong this motivation is depends on several factors, but the severity of the disease is a relevant factor. The motivation to act typically increases with the severity of the disease.

This of course comes as no surprise. The motivation to alleviate a person’s cold is not very strong because a cold is not a severe condition. A runny nose is nothing to complain about. But in the face of more severe conditions such as blood poisoning, diabetes and cancer, the moral drive to act increases. “This condition is very severe” we say and feel that it is very important to act.

So what is the problem that motivates the article? If I am interpreting the authors correctly, the problem is that it is not so easy to convert this obvious use of language into a rule to follow. I recently bought a kettle that came with this warning: “Do not fill the kettle with an excessive amount of water.” The warning is, in a way, self-evident. Of course, you should not fill the kettle with an excessive amount of water! The motivation to pour should have stopped before the water level got excessively high. Even though the language is perfectly obvious, the rule is not as obvious, because when is the water level excessively high? When should we stop pouring?

The problem with the word “severity” is similar, or at least that is my interpretation. “Severity” is an obvious linguistic tool when we discuss illness and the need to do something about it. But at the same time, it is difficult to define the term as a description of when conditions are (more or less) severe and when it is (more or less) motivated to do something about them. Some philosophers have therefore criticized the use of “severity” in discussions about, for example, priority setting in healthcare. The situation would become somewhat paradoxical, since an obviously relevant concept would be excluded because it is unclear how it can be transformed into a description that can be followed as if it were a simple rule.

If I understand the article correctly, the authors want to defend the concept of severity by showing that severity qualifies our moral motivation to act when someone is ill. They do this by describing six other concepts that it is more generally accepted should qualify how morally important it is to do something about a condition, including the concepts of need and lack of well-being. None of the six concepts coincides completely with the concept of severity, but when we try to assess how they affect the need to act, we will often simultaneously assess the severity. And when we assess the severity of an illness, we will often at the same time assess how the illness affects well-being, for example.

The authors’ conclusion is that the concept of severity is a morally relevant concept that should be considered in future discussions, as severity qualifies the moral motivation to act. However, I may have misunderstood the reasoning, so if you want to be on the safe side, you can read the article here: Severity as a moral qualifier of malady.

I want to end the post with a personal side note: I am inclined to say that the philosophical difficulty in defining the concept of severity (when we talk about disease) is similar to the difficulty in defining the concept of excess (when we talk about water levels). What makes these concepts so useful is their great pliability. It is difficult to say what “severe disease” or “excessively high water level” is, because it depends on so much. Pliable words like these are like tracking dogs that sensitively move through the terrain in all possible relevant directions. But if we try to reconstruct the tracking dog’s sensitivity in general intellectual terms, without access to the dog’s sense of smell, experiences and instincts, we run into great difficulties.

Should these philosophical difficulties motivate us to get rid of the dog? Of course not! Just as we learn incredibly much from following a tracking dog, we learn incredibly much from following the words “severe disease,” even if the journey is arduous. This underlines the authors’ conclusion: severity should be considered a morally significant concept that continues to deserve our attention.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Solberg, C.T., Barra, M., Sandman, L. et al. Severity as a moral qualifier of malady. BMC Medical Ethics 24, 25 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-023-00903-2

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We like challenging questions

The significance of the academic seminar

Ever since I was a doctoral student in philosophy, I have experienced the seminar, usually held once a week, as the heart of the academic environment. Why is the seminar so important?

If we are to stick to the etymology of the word, we should use a different image than that of the heart. The seminar is the nursery where seeds germinate and seedlings grow strong in a favourable environment, to then be planted out. That image fits well with doctoral education. The seminar is the place where doctoral students get training in presenting and discussing their scientific work. They get the opportunity to present their studies and texts and receive constructive criticism from senior researchers and from other doctoral students. In this way, their theses will be as brilliant as possible and they can practice the academic forms of giving and receiving constructive criticism, of defending their positions and changing their minds.

But there are also other seedlings in the academy than doctoral students and thesis drafts. Even senior researchers’ studies and texts are originally seedlings. Even these need to grow before they can be planted in scientific journals or at book publishers. The seminar never ceases to be a nursery. I dare say that the seminar is just as important for established researchers as it is for doctoral students.

The seminar is also the weekly event where something finally happens together with others. Academics often work in a certain solitude, especially when writing. Colleagues who may not have met since the last seminar reunite and continue the conversation in the familiar seminar room. Is the seminar like a recurring dance arrangement for lonely academics? Yes, the seminar probably also resembles an academic dance palace. In addition, sometimes you can invite presenters to the seminar, maybe even stars, then the event will be really brilliant.

The seminar is not least one of every academic institution’s most important places for discussion where colleagues meet regularly and learn to understand each other. Despite working from different theoretical, methodological and linguistic starting points. The academy is not homogenous, but is full of theories, methods and languages, even within the same discipline. If we do not meet every week and continue the conversation together, we soon become strangers who do not understand each other.

All these images reveal essential aspects of the academic seminar: the image of nursery as well as the image of the dance palace and the image of the place of discussion. Yet they do not reveal the significance of the seminar that I experience most strongly. I must return to the image of the heart, of the life-sustaining centre. I want to say that the seminar is the place where an academic subject becomes alive and real. The subject can be philosophy or literature, mathematics or neuroscience, law or economy. What can such strange subjects mean in the heart of a human being? At the seminar, living philosophers, literary scholars, mathematicians, lawyers or economists meet each other. At the seminar, they bring their academic subjects to life, for themselves and for younger researchers in the making. Each seminar pumps new reality into the subject, which would otherwise be pale and abstract. At the seminar you can see, hear and even smell what philosophy and other academic subjects really are. They never become more real than in the seminar.

I think we could go on forever looking for different meanings of the academic seminar.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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We care about education

Ethical challenges when children with cancer are recruited for research

Cancer is a common cause of death among children, but improved treatments have significantly increased survival, especially in high-income countries. A prerequisite for this development is research.

When we think of a hospital, we think mainly of the care given to patients there. But care and research are largely developed together in the hospitals. Treatments given in the hospitals are tested in research carried out in the hospitals. This overlap of care and research in the same setting creates ethical challenges. Not least because it can be difficult to see and maintain the differences when, as I said, the activities overlap.

Kajsa Norbäck, PhD student at CRB, investigates in an interview study Swedish healthcare professionals’ perceptions and experiences of ethical challenges when children with cancer are recruited for research in the hospitals where they are patients. Research is needed for future childhood cancer care, but what are the challenges when approaching children with cancer and their parents with the question of research participation?

The interview material is rich and difficult to summarize in a blog post, but I want to highlight a few findings that particularly impressed me. I recommend those interested to take the time to read the entire article in peace and quiet. Interview studies provide a living direct contact with reality from the perspective of the interviewees. Kajsa Norbäck writes that interview studies give us informative examples of ethical challenges. Such examples are needed to give the ethical reflection concreteness and grounding in reality.

The interviewed healthcare professionals particularly emphasized the importance of establishing a trusting relationship with the family. Only when you have such a relationship does it make sense to discuss possible research participation. Personally, I cannot help but interpret it as meaning that the care relationship with patient and family must be established first. It is within the framework of the care relationship that possible research participation can be discussed in a trusting manner. But trust can also be a dilemma, the interviews show. The interviewees stated that many families had so much trust in healthcare and research that it could feel too easy and predictable to get consent for research participation. They also had the impression that parents could sometimes give consent to research out of fear of not having done everything they could to save the child, as if research was a last chance to get effective care.

The challenge of managing the overlap of care and research also extends to the professional role of the physician. Physicians have a care responsibility, but since the care they can offer rests on research, they also feel a research responsibility: they feel a responsibility to recruit research participants from among their patients. This dual responsibility can naturally create conflicts of interest, of which they give informative examples in the interviews.

In the middle of this force field of challenges we have the child, who may have difficulty making itself heard, perhaps because many of us have difficulty being a listener. Here is what one of the interviewees says: “We often talk about informing and I think that’s a strange word. I think the greatest competence is to listen.” There is a lot to listen to in Kajsa Norbäck’s interview study as well, more than I can reproduce in a blog post. Read her article here: Ethical concerns when recruiting children with cancer for research: Swedish healthcare professionals’ perceptions and experiences.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Norbäck, K., Höglund, A.T., Godskesen, T. and Frygner-Holm, S. Ethical concerns when recruiting children with cancer for research: Swedish healthcare professionals’ perceptions and experiences. BMC Medical Ethics 24, 23 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-023-00901-4

This post in Swedish

Ethics needs empirical input

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