Thursday, August 31, 2006


Originally Posted July 27th

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.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Law and Philosophy Article

My paper "Civic Liberalism and the 'Dialogical Model' of Judicial Review" has just come out in print in the September issue of the journal Law and Philosophy (subscription needed). Here is the abstract:

In this paper I aim to help lessen the strangle-hold the principle-oriented approach to justice has on political theorists. The appropriate metric for measuring the justice of a system of social cooperation, I argue, is one that focuses on the exercise of the virtues of fair social cooperation. I defend a virtue-oriented theory of justice called civic liberalism. Civic liberalism emphasizes the moral and pragmatic dimensions of the virtues of toleration, civility and fairness. After outlining the deficiencies of the principle-oriented approach to justice, I develop the framework for a theory of justice that takes seriously our liberal and democratic commitments. Such a framework resolves the ‘Madisonian Dilemma’ and prescribes that we strive for a middle ground between legislative and judicial supremacy. More specifically, I argue that a ‘dialogical model’ of judicial review is such a middle ground and that it enhances the exercise of the virtues of fair social cooperation.


Gene Therapy

The LA times has an interesting and informative article on recent advances (and setbacks) in gene therapy here. Here is a snippet from the article:

TO the shrill whine of a high-speed drill, neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Larson makes two nickel-sized holes in Shirley Cooper's skull. Guided by a computerized MRI map, he plunges a long, thin needle through one hole and deep into the brain — and empties the syringe. A very special payload trickles into her brain: genes that, if all goes well, will help her control the movement of her muscles.

It is a day in late May and Cooper, 60, an artist who lives near Seattle, has come to the UC San Francisco Medical Center to find some relief from the Parkinson's disease that is stealing her identity. Without medication, she has trouble walking and talking, and can't hold a paint brush. And the drugs are wearing off — as they eventually do for all Parkinson's patients. After that, she probably will deteriorate rapidly.

The experimental treatment Cooper is undergoing is intended to reverse that process. Parkinson's destroys cells in the brain that make dopamine, and the loss of this key brain transmitter triggers the disease's crippling symptoms: tremors in the arms, legs and face, stiff or frozen limbs, and impaired balance and coordination. In the trial she's involved in — the earliest of clinical tests, designed to assess safety — scientists have engineered a harmless, stripped-down virus to carry a gene that will boost brain dopamine through the enzyme it encodes: amino acid decarboxylase, or AADC.

....Gene therapy is making a comeback after a series of serious setbacks that threatened to permanently derail human tests. In recent years, European scientists have cured more than two dozen patients suffering from three rare, and in some cases lethal, immune disorders.

Spurred by this success, plus the development of new techniques aimed at making the therapy safer and more effective, more than 300 gene therapy trials, including the one for Parkinson's at UC San Francisco, are underway in the U.S. and abroad.

There are 790 approved gene-therapy trials in America and 338 in Europe. See this site for some useful charts on gene therapy trials. The approval of the first commercial gene therapy product was recently reported in the journal Human Gene Therapy (September 2005).



Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Palgrave Manuscript

Tonight I finished my new manuscript entitled Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement. This book is something I have been working on, in one form or another, for 10 years. So packaging the final copies of the manuscript in a thick envelope and sending it off to the publisher (Palgrave MacMillan) today felt very satisfying.

I have posted a few blogs on themes from the book already. Like my post on four fundamental convictions, what is political theory?, the rise of deliberative democracy, ideal theory, the personal is political, and libertarianism and rectification. Those posts should give you a sense of the kinds of concerns that motivated me to write the book. (A sample from the book itself is available here)

The book is a plea for political philosophers to take non-ideal constraints (like scarcity, pervasive disadvantage, indeterminacy, fallibility, disagreement, etc.) seriously. By doing so we can better bridge the gap between theory and practice.

I have two central aims in the book. The first, primarily negative aim, is to put some dents in the principled paradigm of ideal theory. I cast a pretty wide net in terms of the theories I critique- liberal egalitarianism (especially Rawls and Dworkin) and left (Van Parijs and Otsuka) and right (Nozick) variants of libertarianism.

The second, positive, aim of the book is to outline and defend a rival theoretical framework- a virtue-oriented theory called 'civic liberalism'. Civic liberalism focuses on three central civic virtues- toleration, civility and fairness. Rather than privilege a shortlist of serially ordered principles of justice that apply to the basic structure of society, civic liberalism inspires a comprehensive theory that applies to both individuals and institutions.

I emphasis three general prescriptions of civic liberalism in the book. Firstly, that we should take a purposeful and fiscally responsive approach to rights. This deviates quite significantly from standard liberal political theory in a number of important respects. It requires us to recognise the limitations of the liberal ideal of state neutrality and to reject the suggestion that neutrality can replace toleration. Furthermore, it requires us to abandon the idea that rights are trumps and the traditional division that is often made between the so-called ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ rights.

The second prescription of civic liberalism is that we should strive for a middle ground between judicial and legislative supremacy. Civic liberalism takes seriously what Robert Bork (1990) calls the ‘Madisonian Dilemma’. This is the dilemma between the moral demands of the virtues of toleration and civility. Respect for toleration leads us in the direction of limited government, government that does not unjustly interfere with individual liberty. This concern for individual rights provides the normative basis for constitutionalism. This can be contrasted with the moral demands of civility, demands which leads us to majority rule and the idea of self-government. If we take only the moral dimensions of these two virtues into account, it seems that we cannot resolve the Madisonian Dilemma. For we have two contradictory prescriptions- limited government and self-government. But civic liberalism inspires a public philosophy that gives due attention to both the moral and pragmatic dimensions of these virtues. It does not seek to give an absolute priority to any of the moral demands of toleration or civility. Rather, it seeks to reconcile the diverse demands of toleration, civility and fairness. As such, civic liberalism does not see the Madisonian Dilemma as paradoxical. This apparent dilemma reinforces the case for invoking a virtue-oriented approach rather than a principle-oriented approach to government. Civic liberalism defends a virtue-oriented conception of liberal democracy that takes both sides of the Madisionian Dilemma seriously. A public philosophy that takes the complexities of the Madisionian Dilemma seriously is one that will seek to steer a middle path between judicial and legislative supremacy. I argue that one such middle path is occupied by the ‘dialogical model’ of judicial review and such a model is virtue-enhancing and thus desirable by the standards of civic liberalism.

And finally, the third prescription of civic liberalism is that we must foster and cultivate an informed and engaged reflective citizenry. A citizenry who, among other things, seeks to accommodate the demands of both prioritarianism and ethical particularism. A citizenry who recognises the fact that property is a legal convention and that taxation is a major instrument of implementing the demands of justice. And yet one that appreciates the complexities of the vulnerabilities that citizens face both for themselves and for their loved ones. Informed citizens will have an accurate sense of their position within the distributive scheme as well as the needs of others. This requires some intimate knowledge of their own society (e.g. its history, socio-economic prosperity, the needs of the disadvantaged, etc.). The reflective citizen will possess the ability to make others imaginatively present in their own minds. Such a citizen seeks to balance their personal and familial obligations with the prioritarian obligation to others. When a citizen feels that the collectivity has failed to go far enough in terms of redressing preventable disadvantage, they will act in a manner appropriate of someone with moral integrity. For example, they may donate a greater proportion of their time, energy and wealth to private and public organizations that they believe are well placed to further fulfill our prioritarian obligations. Doing this demonstrates one’s fidelity to respecting the disadvantaged (which is a requirement of the virtue of fairness).

Writing this book has been a very intimate experience for me. It represents my own personal struggle to reconcile my deepest moral and political convictions and captures my concerns and reservations about the fitness of contemporary political philosophy. For me political philosophy/theory is inherently practical. A theory of justice should be able to function as both a motive and a guide for our individual and collective action. And to serve these two purposes a political theory must be atuned to the realities we face in real, non-ideal societies.

If everything goes smoothly this book should be out in print some time in 2007. With the Palgrave book now completed, and a sabbatical this coming year, I can invest more of my energies into my next big project- a book on genetics and justice.



Monday, August 21, 2006

Longevity Dividend Campaign

As I posted in some previous posts (here, here, here and here), I have been following the newly emerging debates on the ethics of human enhancements with much interest.

For me the important issue is not should we permit people to utilize (should we develop safe and effective) human enhancements (why stifle science and prevent people from improving the quality of their lives?). Rather the real important issue is determining how much priority (in terms of utilizing public funds) should we place on such aspirations relative to other pressing laudable aims that compete for scarce public funds. So when I was recently contacted to support the Longevity Dividend Campaign that will take place on Capitol Hill on September 12th I was more than happy to lend my support. Hopefully this campaign will raise greater awareness about the importance of investing in the extension of healthy life.

The impetus for the campaign is this thoughtful piece in The Scientist written by S. Jay Olshansky, Daniel Perry, Richard Miller and Robert Butler. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

The experience of aging is about to change. Humans are approaching old age in unprecedented numbers, and this generation and all that follow have the potential to live longer, healthier lives than any in history. These changing demographics also carry the prospect of overwhelming increases in agerelated disease, frailty, disability, and all the associated costs and social burdens. The choices we make now will have a profound influence on the health and the wealth of current and future generations....

What we have in mind is not the unrealistic pursuit of dramatic increases in life expectancy, let alone the kind of biological immortality best left to science fiction novels. Rather, we envision a goal that is realistically achievable: a modest deceleration in the rate of aging sufficient to delay all aging-related diseases and disorders by about seven years. This target was chosen because the risk of death and most other negative attributes of aging tends to rise exponentially throughout the adult lifespan with a doubling time of approximately seven years. Such a delay would yield health and longevity benefits greater than what would be achieved with the elimination of cancer or heart disease.23 And we believe it can be achieved for generations now alive.

If we succeed in slowing aging by seven years, the age-specific risk of death, frailty, and disability will be reduced by approximately half at every age. People who reach the age of 50 in the future would have the health profile and disease risk of today’s 43-year-old; those aged 60 would resemble current 53-year-olds, and so on. Equally important, once achieved, this seven-year delay would yield equal health and longevity benefits for all subsequent generations, much the same way children born in most nations today benefit from the discovery and development of immunizations.

An important part of this campaign is it's well-thought out and reasonable recommendation. When placed in the context of the current political agenda (i.e. spending billions on wars around the world to win the "war on terror", vetoing the stem cell bill , repealing the estates tax, etc.) one realizes how sensible and welcomed this campaign is (though the campaign is sensible and reasonable in its own right). Here is the recommendation:

The NIH is funded at $28 billion in 2006, but less than 0.1% of that amount goes to understanding the biology of aging and how it predisposes us to a suite of costly diseases and disorders expressed at later ages. We are calling on Congress to invest $3 billion annually to this effort, or about 1% of the current Medicare budget of $309 billion, and to provide the organizational and intellectual infrastructure and other related resources to make this work.

Specifically, we recommend that one-third of this budget ($1 billion) be devoted to the basic biology of aging with a focus on genomics and regenerative medicine as they relate to longevity science. Another third should be devoted to age-related diseases as part of a coordinated trans-NIH effort. One sixth ($500 million) should be devoted to clinical trials with proportionate representation of older persons (aged 65+) that include head-to-head studies of drugs or interventions including lifestyle comparisons, cost-effectiveness studies, and the development of a national system for postmarketing surveillance.

The remaining $500 million should go to a national preventive medicine research initiative that would include studies of safety and health in the home and workplace and address issues of physical inactivity and obesity as well as genetic and other early-life pathological influences. This last category would include studies of the social and economic means to effect positive changes in health behaviors in the face of current health crises – obesity and diabetes – that can lower life expectancy. Elements of the budget could be phased in over time, and it would be appropriate to use funds within each category for research training and the development of appropriate infrastructure. We also strongly encourage the development of an international consortium devoted to this task, as all nations would benefit from securing the Longevity Dividend.

With this effort, we believe it will be possible to intervene in aging among the baby boom cohorts, and all generations after them would enjoy the health and economic benefits of delayed
aging. Such a monetary commitment would be small when compared to that spent each year on Medicare alone, but it would pay dividends an order of magnitude greater than the investment.
And it would do so for current and future generations.

Lend your support to this important initiative today!



Sunday, August 20, 2006

Gene Therapy and Arthritis

Arthritis consists of over 100 different conditions, ranging from minor conditions like 'tennis elbow' to very serious conditions. And arthritis can can affect both the young and the old. Here are some facts on arthritis from the Arthritis Foundation:

Number of Americans with arthritis or chronic joint symptoms:

--2005 – 66 million (nearly 1 in 3 adults)
-- 42.7 million have doctor-diagnosed arthritis and 23.2 million people live with chronic joint symptoms, but have not been diagnosed by a doctor.
--Arthritis is one of the most prevalent chronic health problems and the nation’s leading cause of disability among Americans over age 15.
--Arthritis is second only to heart disease as a cause of work disability.
--Arthritis limits everyday activities such as walking, dressing and bathing for more than 7 million Americans.
--Arthritis results in 39 million physician visits and more than a half million hospitalizations. Costs to the U.S. economy totals more than $86.2 billion annually.
--Arthritis affects people in all age groups including nearly 300,000 children. --Baby boomers are now at prime risk. More than half those affected are under age 65.
--Half of those Americans with arthritis don’t think anything can be done to help them.
--Arthritis refers to more than 100 different diseases that affect areas in or around joints.

The Boston Globe has this interesting article on gene therapy and arthritis. Here is a snippet from the article:

One effort, led by a Harvard Medical School researcher, is focusing on a simple idea: Inject into the diseased joint a gene that will continuously pump medicine right where it is needed. Another project , led by a Maryland company, will instead use genetically modified cells to prompt growth of damaged cartilage.

Some of the work will piggyback on gene therapy experiments in rheumatoid arthritis that are showing hints of effectiveness.

The arthritis studies are part of an expansion of gene therapy research to diseases that are neither purely genetic nor necessarily lethal. Seven years after the death of a healthy teenager [Jesse Gelsinger] in a flawed experiment stalled most gene therapy studies, research is booming in diseases ranging from Alzheimer's and angina to cancer and multiple sclerosis....

Paul Gelsinger, Jesse's father, warns potential volunteers to get involved in gene therapy studies only after asking lots of questions about safety. ``If it's not life-threatening, I would go for much more conventional treatment," he said.

Carlene Lauffer, however, said she would volunteer in a minute, although her arthritis is too advanced to qualify for Evans's research. Lauffer, 78, suffers from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis and has had finger joint replacements and a hip replacement. She takes medicine for rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disorder in which the joint lining swells and produces a substance that destroys the joint's surface. She also takes pain pills for her osteoarthritis.

``I think there's a need for gene therapy" for arthritis, said Lauffer, of Weirton, W.Va. ``We can maybe lick this."

In 1996, Lauffer was the first patient to undergo gene therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in an experiment run by Evans and colleagues, then at the University of Pittsburgh, that was designed to test only the principle and safety. The researchers injected her knuckles with the gene therapy or a placebo, monitored it for a week, and then removed and replaced the diseased joints. In Lauffer and eight other volunteers, they found that the gene entered cells in the joint and pumped the same medicinal protein now being used in the osteoarthritis research. Five years later, none of the volunteers had any ill effects.

For rheumatoid arthritis, which affects more than 2 million Americans, Evans and at least four other groups of scientists are pursuing clinical trials in gene therapy. Targeted Genetics, a Seattle company, is furthest along, with preliminary results that show a 20 to 30 percent reduction in swelling and tenderness in some patients, said Pervin Anklesaria, vice president of therapeutic development. The results have not yet been published.



Saturday, August 12, 2006

Survey on Evolution

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection is one of the most important contributions to science. Almost 150 years after the publication of Darwin's controversial book The Origin of Species, how successful have we been in convincing the general public of the claim that human beings have evolved from earlier species? The latest survey in this week's issue of Science is disturbing and demonstrates how we should never be complacent in our fight against ignorance and dogma. The article is here (subscription needed) and here is a snippet:

Beginning in 1985, national samples of U.S. adults have been asked whether the statement, "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals," is true or false, or whether the respondent is not sure or does not know. We compared the results of these surveys with survey data from nine European countries in 2002, surveys in 32 European countries in 2005, and a national survey in Japan in 2001 (5). Over the past 20 years, the percentage of U.S. adults accepting the idea of evolution has declined from 45% to 40% and the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution declined from 48% to 39%. The percentage of adults who were not sure about evolution increased from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005. After 20 years of public debate, the public appears to be divided evenly in terms of accepting or rejecting evolution, with about one in five adults still undecided or unaware of the issue.

Public acceptance of evolution does vary from country to country. Here are the survey results from the Science article published by Jon D. Miller, Eugenie C. Scott, and Shinji Okamoto.

Why does the US rank so low on the acceptance of evolution? The authors provide the following explanation:

The politicization of science in the name of religion and political partisanship is not new to the United States, but transformation of traditional geographically and economically based political parties into religiously oriented ideological coalitions marks the beginning of a new era for science policy. The broad public acceptance of the benefits of science and technology in the second half of the 20th century allowed science to develop a nonpartisan identification that largely protected it from overt partisanship. That era appears to have closed.

PBS has a very informative and entertaining site on evolution here.