Thursday, July 27, 2006


Since completing my PhD in 1999 I have been teaching full-time for 7 straight years. In that time I have taught over 2 000 students at four different universities in England, Scotland and Canada. This coming year I am on sabbatical, my first sabbatical ever. By comparison to most academics, this first sabbatical is long overdue.

By moving from various universities, first within the UK, and then back to Canada, I in effect forfeited a sabbatical. Each of these moves were moves I was of course very happy to make. So the fact that I started afresh each time, in terms of sabbatical credit, did not bother me.

Furthermore, I love teaching and sincerely believe that teaching and research go hand-in-hand. So teaching at different institutions, and in different disciplines and countries, has really benefited my intellectual development and thus I don’t feel the absence of a sabbatical has in any way hurt my research. But the chance to spend this coming academic year with a more focused attention on my research programme is something I look forward to with much anticipation and enthusiasm.

Those outside of academia might wonder what, exactly, is a sabbatical? Here at Waterloo University the stated policy on sabbaticals is as follows:

“The purpose of a sabbatical leave is to contribute to professional development, enabling members to keep abreast of emerging developments in their particular fields and enhancing their effectiveness as teachers, researchers and scholars. Such leaves also help to prevent the development of closed or parochial environments by making it possible for faculty members to travel to differing locales where special research equipment may be available or specific discipline advances have been accomplished. Sabbaticals provide an opportunity for intellectual growth and enrichment as well as for scholarly renewal and reassessment”.

I genuinely share the sentiments expressed in this policy, and so I take my sabbatical responsibilities very seriously. The fact that Canadian tax-payers pay my salary means that I must justify, to them, why they are paying for my sabbatical. Academics should not view sabbaticals as something they are simply entitled to; rather it is something that must be earned and it carries weighty responsibilities.

The fact that I see a sabbatical as something one must justify has motivated me to write this post, to offer some reflections on why a sabbatical is important (not just to the academic him or herself, but to society-in-general) and what I intend to do during my upcoming sabbatical.

To justify taking a sabbatical one must first place the purpose of a sabbatical in the larger context of the value of institutions of higher education more generally. Universities promote many important societal interests. They help train students to perform the specialised jobs which the global market demands of Canadian workers if we are to remain competitive and at the cutting edge of the global market.

But universities do much more than this. Universities also disseminate knowledge about important intellectual traditions (e.g. an appreciation of human history and art, etc.) and help cultivate valuable intellectual skills (e.g. critical analysis, communicative skills, etc.). These traditions and skills are both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable. They enhance a student’s quality of life by exposing him/her to new ideas and help equip them with the skills necessary to exercise their practical reason and pursue intellectual freedom. And higher education also benefits society in general. An educated citizenry is vital to having a healthy, tolerant polity.

So universities serve a diverse array of important economic, social and moral purposes. An academic’s sabbatical plans should be shaped by an appreciation of the values that inform higher education more generally. And the UW stated sabbatical policy captures those nicely.

Of course academics will have to balance their career responsibilities with other commitments, such as their familial responsibilities. These responsibilities might make it difficult, for example, to physically relocate the family during a sabbatical term. One’s spouse might have career obligations that limit a family’s mobility, or one might have children and/or financial constraints that limit what one can do. So like most things in life, figuring out what the right thing to do during one’s sabbatical is difficult and requires much reflection, deliberation and compromise.

Bearing these diverse considerations in mind, I put a lot of time and energy into planning my sabbatical this year, hoping that all these pieces of the puzzle would (eventually!) fall into place. Ideally, I would get the chance to go somewhere that would truly enhance my intellectual growth and also be something that would be viable in terms of relocating the family (who would have to come with me). But even the best intentions and planning also needs some luck

I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to do something that gives me all of things I hoped for and more. I have been awarded a research fellowship to spend a year at the Centre for the Study of Social Justice at Oxford University. While there I will work on my book on genetic justice, and contribute to the activities of the Centre (e.g. contribute to seminars, conferences, etc.). This new book aims to generate a greater awareness of, and help us address, the pressing social, ethical and legal challenges which the genetic revolution has thrust upon us. I have already published a series of articles on these issues (see here, here, here and here).

Why do I think this research is important? A sample of some of my blog posts (here, here, here and here), as well as those of others, should, I hope, convince you that these are important issues worth taking seriously. The values and interests at stake in addressing the genetic revolution are those integral to social justice. And this is an area of study that must be *interdisciplinary*. Having the opportunity to spend the year working at the Centre for the Study of Social Justice is perfect. The Centre’s stated purpose and mission is as follows:

“The Centre for the Study of Social Justice is a forum for Oxford's distinguished grouping of political theorists to share their expertise, collaborate on research projects and publicise their work to the broader academic and policy-making community.

Questions of social justice cover a wide range: philosophical and practical, theoretical and applied, global and domestic. Encompassing this variety the Centre provides a unique opportunity for cutting-edge intellectual exchange on a subject of fundamental political significance.

The Centre aims to make connections and build bridges: between different aspects of the theoretical study of social justice; with other disciplines such as Philosophy, Law, Economics, Sociology and Social Policy; and with the "real world" of politicians and think-tanks”.

So from a career perspective, being awarded this fellowship is absolutely perfect. I couldn’t have hoped for more. There are a number of excellent people at the Centre, and at Oxford more generally, and interacting with these scholars will be very beneficial to my intellectual development.

As for relocating my family, the fact that my wife and I have already lived in the UK for 7 years, and both are children were born there, should make things much more easier than it would be for someone in a different situation. We have a great deal of friends from various places in the UK that we look forward to seeing during our stay. And our children, who left the UK when they were very young (though they are still young), are looking forward to returning to the cities they were born in and have heard many stories about.

And finally, Oxford is a very beautiful city (see this and this).

So this coming year, my first sabbatical, is extra special for a number of reasons. It’s a great adventure that we are all looking forward to. Of course preparing to relocate the family overseas is also very stressful and time-consuming. And I only have a few weeks left to sort out a million things. Thus I’m afraid the blogging will be light until we are settled on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I might “recycle” a few posts, reviving some substantial posts from the archives. And I expect to return to a more regular posting schedule in the Fall term, no doubt with some posts on our experiences of living in Oxford for the year. It should be a fun year!

I hope you visit the blog to hear how things are going.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Neanderthal Genome

Researchers in Germany plan to reconstruct the genome of Neanderthals. The story is here and here. What do they hope to gain from this research? The piece in the NY Times explains:

Recovery of the Neanderthal genome, in whole or in part, would be invaluable for reconstructing many events in human prehistory and evolution. It would help address such questions as whether Neanderthals and humans interbred, whether the archaic humans had an articulate form of language, how the Neanderthal brain was constructed, if they had light or dark skins, and the total size of the Neanderthal population.

....One of the most important results that researchers are hoping for is to discover, from a three-way comparison between chimp, human and Neanderthal DNA, which genes have made humans human. The chimp and human genomes differ at just 1 percent of the sites on their DNA. At 1 percent, Neanderthals resemble humans at 96 percent of the sites, to judge from the preliminary work, and chimps at 4 percent. Analysis of the DNA at the sites at which humans differ from the two other species will help understand the evolution of specifically human traits “and perhaps even aspects of cognitive function,” Dr. Paabo said.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stem Cell Bill

Today the U.S. Senate voted to expand federal support of medical research using stem cells. Unfortunately the vote, 63 to 37, was 4 votes short of the number needed to prevent President Bush from vetoing the bill (which he has already said he will do).

If Bush does veto the Bill this will be a gross injustice to those who could benefit from this important medical research. The NY Times has the scoop here. Here are some highlights from the Times story:

The issue has deeply divided Republicans, many of whom support expanded research on medical grounds, political grounds or both. Backers of the bill, including some members of Mr. Bush’s party, pleaded publicly with the president to reconsider his promise of a veto, with Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, recalling the suffering of members of the mother’s side of his own family as they struggled with Parkinson’s disease.

“I appeal to my friend, President Bush, in the name of my Udall ancestry to please do not veto this bill,” Mr. Smith said. “To watch people die of such a malady is to instill in one’s heart a desire to err on the side of health, hope and healing, to find a cure if a cure can be found.”

Mr. Smith is a member the Udall family; Morris K. Udall, the Arizona representative who died of Parkinson’s disease in 1998, was his cousin. Three of the Udalls, including the congressman, Mr. Smith’s grandmother and an uncle, had the disease.

If Bush does veto this important legislation lets hope that American voters will respond (loudly!) in this year's congressional elections.


UPDATE: Bush has vetoed the Bill. That story is here. It's amazing that, despite the fact that both the House of Representatives and the Senate supported the Bill, and 70% of the American population support embryonic stem cell research, Bush still decided to veto it.

The CNN report notes that Bush remarked: ""It [stem cell research] crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect. So I vetoed it." Unfortunately Bush fails to see that we have a moral obligation not only to support this important medical research, but to respect democracy itself. I guess he believes that he (and he alone) is the guardian of moral decency. Utilising the veto to derail democratic law-making must be backed-up by a very weighty moral justification. Bush has not done this, and failing to do so is perhaps the greatest threat to decency. The irony that a President who espouses exporting democracy abroad cannot show respect for that process in his own country!

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Genetic Revolution: A Snapshot

(Originally Posted April 26, 2006)

Back in September 2005 I signed up for a Google Alerts on the topic "Gene Therapy". Google Alerts “are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic”. So I receive an email notifying me of the internet link for any news story posted on the topic “Gene Therapy”. Compiling 8 months of Google Alerts provided me with a fascinating glimpse of the momentum of the genetic revolution. I received *hundreds* (after 200 I gave up counting!) of updates on various news reports. But the quantity of stories and reports is not the most interesting part of this tale. What is truly fascinating is the *variety* of news stories, each of which bring to the fore a different dimension of these incredible innovations and the challenges we face. Let me try to bring this snapshot of the genetic revolution to life by highlighting some of the different components of the story of gene therapy (as told by 8 months of Google Alerts!).

One part of this picture is the story of the noble search for ways to prevent or cure genetic disease. This story in the connected.telegraph is the story about a "germline" genetic therapy for metabolic diseases, a story that raises ethical concerns about germline interventions and human rights. There is also this press release which reports that a clinical trial has resumed, despite some setbacks, into a treatment of X-linked severe combined Immuno-deficiency (X-SCID), an inherited genetic disease. There is also this story which reports that University of Florida scientists used a healthy human gene to prevent blindness in mice with a form of an incurable eye disease that strikes boys. And finally, today's Google Alerts bring this story about a long-term animal study which suggests that SCID Gene Therapy itself causes cancer in about a third of cases. Four different stories highlighting the successes and setbacks in the struggle to mitigate genetic disadvantage.

During the Winter Olympics in February there were stories like this, this, and this. Stories which highlight the concern that professional athletes might engage in gene doping. February also brought the report about Hashmukh Patel, a 62-year-old retired semiconductor engineer from Silicon Valley. Hashmukh suffers from late-stage cancer of the esophagus and travels to Beijing for a Chinese gene therapy drug called Gendicine ( the world's first commercially approved gene therapy drug).

The Google Alert's snapshot also brings to the fore the issue of funding biomedical research. This snapshot reveals a mixture of public and private funding. So there is the story about a 2 million Euro grant from the Dutch governmental organization Senter to fund an innovative therapeutic that promotes nerve regeneration. There is also this report about a contract between Cobra Biomanufacturing Plc. and the Australian company Replikun Biotech. A deal aimed at supporting the development of an innovative gene therapy method. And finally there is the story of actor Michael J. Fox's grant of $4.2 million to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center affiliate called Rheo Gene Inc. The grant funds the development of gene therapy for Parkinson's disease (Fox has Parkinson's).

I conclude my story of the Google Alert's snapshot with the update I received today- this report, which is the final quarter results for Oncolytics Biotech Inc. Under the heading "General Risk Factors" is the following sage insight:

"Prospects for biotechnology companies in the research and development stage should generally be regarded as speculative. It is not possible to predict, based upon studies in animals, or early studies in humans, whether a new therapeutic will ultimately prove to be safe and effective in humans, or whether necessary and sufficient data can be developed through the clinical trial process to support a successful product application and approval."

The Google Alerts for just the past 8 months gives us a glimpse of the complex myriad of ethical, social and legal issues raised by the new genetics. The stories linked above are just a brief snapshot of the larger story that is unfolding around us with rapid speed. The story of our search for solutions to the arbitrary and often tragic consequences of the natural lottery of life is one of both successes and setbacks. But it is also an incredible story of human ingenuity and determination. And perhaps that is the biggest story revealed in the snapshot provided by Google Alerts.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Magnets and Gene Therapy

The (Australian) ABC Science Online has this interesting story entitled "Magnets May Target Gene Therapy". The report focuses on the work of a Swiss scientist, Heinrich Hofmann. Hofmann believes that we might be able to drag genes (that are attached to iron oxide nanoparticles) around the body by using magnets. Here is a snippet from the report:

Gene therapy has been beset with problems including the lack of a safe and effective vector to transport therapeutic genes into cells. Hofmann says his iron oxide nanoparticles are safer than commonly used viral vectors, which can mutate and influence the DNA of cells.

" The iron oxide particle is less dangerous than a virus," he says. He also says the nanoparticles can be controlled more precisely than a virus because they can be moved into place with a magnet.

In a recent experiment, Hofmann injected iron nanoparticles attached to a green fluorescent protein gene into the joint of sheep and used a magnet to move the gene into place. The sheep cells produced green fluorescent protein that glowed green under light, proving the success of the experiment, Hoffman says.



UPDATE: Those interested in this topic might find the following publication of interest: “Gene Therapy Progress and Prospects: Magnetic Nanoparticle-Based Gene Delivery”. By J. Dodson, in Gene Therapy, 13(4): 283-7, Feb. 2006. The PubMed link is here.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Cancer Genome Atlas

Seven months ago (Dec. 2005) The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) was launched. The stated mission and goal of TCGA is as follows:

The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) is a comprehensive and coordinated effort to accelerate our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer through the application of genome analysis technologies, including large-scale genome sequencing.

To fulfill the mission, the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute have launched The Cancer Genome Atlas Pilot Project. The pilot project will assess the feasibility of a full-scale effort to systematically explore the entire spectrum of genomic changes involved in human cancer. The overarching goal of The Cancer Genome Atlas is to improve our ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent cancer.

In the latest issue of Nature Medicine there is an interesting news article by Emily Waltz entitled "Informed Consent Issues Hobble Cancer Genome Scheme" (subscription needed). Waltz notes that the cancer genome project faces daunting ethical and practical hurdles. Here is a sample from the informative report:

Researchers plan to use more than 1,000 tumors from US tissue banks, but the samples will need to have signed consent forms from donors allowing their genetic information to be made publicly available. The tumors must also meet a long list of criteria: they must be of a certain quality and homogeneity, at a certain stage of development, preserved correctly and from patients not treated for cancer.

But there simply may not be enough such samples, some experts predict. "It doesn't look wildly promising," says Sean Eddy, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the advisory committee.

The organizers may instead have to track down donors, if they are still alive, and get broader consent—a costly, time-consuming and risky proposition.

Asking donors for permission also raises questions about the consent process, and how best to educate donors about the implications of posting their DNA on the internet.

"A big part is educating the patient to make sure they understand the risks," says Amy McGuire, a bioethicist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "It's very difficult when you're dealing with complex issues such as DNA sequencing and the risks and benefits of public data.

"There is a danger, for example, that new technology for searching genetic databases could allow employers, police departments, health insurance companies and even other scientists to abuse the information and to mine the data for other reasons, such as for forensics, stigmatizing racial studies or tracing biological parents".

The challenges facing The Cancer Genome Atlas are a good example of the challenges we collectively face as we aspire to pursue and implement the demands of "genetic justice". On the one hand, justice requires we support research that seeks to mitigate the arbitrary and tragic consequences of the natural lottery of life. Yet this aspiration can conflict with other requirements of justice, such as respecting consent and genetic privacy. How do we justly accommodate these diverse compelling concerns? These are important questions in need of serious consideration.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006


In two previous posts I briefly offered some reflections on the fact that we are temporal beings. In "Life Extension", for example, I pointed out that age influences our risk of developing disease. And I suggested that this might gives us reason to re-think the priority we ought to place on enhancing technologies.

And in "The Personal is Political" I noted that, as temporal and social beings we have limited time and resources and this complicates the story of finding the mean between partiality and prioritarianism. The obvious fact that humans are temporal beings is a great "non-ideal" consideration that ought play a much greater role in contemporary debates about distributive justice.

Consider, for example, the egalitarian challenge put forth by G.A. Cohen in his book If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? What answer can the affluent make in response to Cohen? In particular, what can the "middle class" (rather than millionaires and billionaires) say?

If a plausible defense can be made I believe it would have to be one which highlights the fact that we are temporal (as well as social) beings. Real human beings (even the middle class) do not go through their whole lives with the same level of socio-economic prospects. Our skill-set and income will typically vary over the course of our lives, as we go through childhood to adulthood and eventually retire.

Why does this kind of "real life" fact matter? It matters for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it means that the obligations justice imposes on us to help mitigate the disadvantage of others (be it poor compatriots or the poor in distant lands) will vary in our different life-stages. So there is a difference between someone who is just beginning their first job out of university at age 24 and has incurred a debt of thousands of dollars, and someone who has been in the skilled workforce for 20 years and has ample opportunity for career advancement and is mortgage free. And these two situations can be contrasted with someone who has recently retired and had their annual income significantly reduced (e.g. by 50%).

So even those who are reasonably well-off will face different challenges at different stages of their finite lives which will complicate the story of what constitutes a reasonable degree of self-regarding concern. This is not to suggest that these individuals have no obligation to help others. Rather, my point is that the stringency of the duty will vary as our life situation changes, and the form of contribution we make to help mitigate disadvantage may also change (e.g. volunteering time and/or money, etc.).

Once we also recognise that real people are also social beings the story gets yet even more complicated. For now new considerations arise as we try to steer a middle ground between partiality and prioritarianism. We must also factor in to the equation what constitutes a reasonable degree of partial affection towards the interests of our intimates. As social beings we typically have dependants whom we are solely or partially responsible for caring for. These might be our children or an aging parent. Such partiality is not simply ethically permissible, it is morally required.

Of course a great deal depends on the stringency of our partial inclinations. We should not adopt the narrow perspective that limits our affections to just our closest intimates. Yet the fact that we may have children or aging parents to care for will mean that the personal funds and/or free-time available for caring for others is strained. A just individual will seek to find a reasonable compromise between these competing demands. If a mother or father’s occupation is very time-consuming we should not expect these parents to spend their rare free-time volunteering rather than spending time with their children. In such a situation a monetary contribution may be more appropriate (e.g. financial donations to local and global charities). Conversely, if as a retired worker one has less money available but more free-time to invest in helping worthwhile causes, then volunteering might be a reasonable way of discharging one’s prioritarian obligations.

The fact that we are temporal beings has a number of important consequences for debates in ethics and political philosophy. So any plausible answer to Cohen's question needs to be attuned to these kinds of considerations (as well as our consumerist attitudes, as I pointed out earlier).

I was pleased to see the latest issue of the journal Science has a special section dedicated to the consequences time has for social scientists (and thus (indirectly) political philosophers!). Here are the abstracts of some of the articles readers might find of interest:

"Politics and the Life Cycle" by Donald R. Kinder
The study of politics and the life cycle began with a rather single-minded focus on childhood and the family—on the idea, as Tocqueville famously put it, that the entire person could be "seen in the cradle of the child." Politics does begin in childhood, and parents do influence their offspring, but change takes place over the entire span of life. I take up the early emergence of partisanship and essentialism, the formation of generations, politically consequential transitions in adulthood, and the rising of politics and its final decline.

"Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion" Daniel Kahneman et. al.
The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.

"Redistributing Work in Aging Europe" James W. Vaupel and Elke Loichinger
As Europe ages, the proportion of people who work will decline unless older individuals remain in the labor force. Such reform could be part of a more general redistribution of work. If a greater share of the population worked, then the average number of hours worked per week could be reduced. This could particularly help younger people and increase Europe's low birth rates. The challenges facing Germany, Europe's most populous country, are highlighted, but statistics are also given for five other European countries and, for comparison, the United States. Social science research is needed to provide policy-relevant knowledge about life-course options.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Conference in Dublin

I have just returned from a 3-day trip to Dublin for the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy Conference on "Social Justice in Practice". I enjoyed the conference very much. There were a variety of presentations on topics linking theory to issues of practice. It was encouraging to see so many political philosophers engage in a sustained methodological debate about the aims of the discipline.

I presented my paper on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and deliberative democracy and received some very useful feedback. That is the fourth time in as many weeks that I have presented this paper to conferences so I have lots to think about as I re-work that paper.

I also attended a number of interesting sessions on global justice and the family. Russell Hardin gave the Austin Lecture on "The Legal Order As an Unintended Consequence" and as always Hardin's talk was amazing. He argued that David Hume has an important (though neglected) contribution to make to legal theory concerning the evolution of law. The idea is that the legal order evolves in unintended ways that are mutually advantageous. This lecture is part of a new book that Hardin will soon publish on Hume's political theory. I look forward to reading that book when it comes out.

I raised a question for Russell during the Q&A period in which I attempted to compare Hume's explanatory theory with Karl Marx's (with the subtle suggestion that, of the two explanatory theories, Marx's explanation sounded a bit more convincing than Hume's). For Marx, the evolution of legal orders is also "unintended" in the sense that they do not evolve as a result of the conscious decisions of particular individuals. But what drives their evolution is the way they respond to the evolution of the "productive forces". And rather than claiming that the consequence of this is mutually advantageous, Marx believed that this produced both winners and losers (in the form of "classes"). I blogged about my thoughts on this issue here. I look forward to reading Hardin's new book to see how Hume's explanatory theory fares when compared to Marx's.