UCL plays key role in bringing ethical thinking to pandemic policy-making

UCL researchers will be at the heart of an initiative to bring the best possible expertise to the ethical challenges policy makers face tackling COVID-19.

Th e UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator will harness and mobilise the UK’s internationally renowned expertise in ethics research. The collaboration between UCL, Oxford, Bristol and Edinburgh universities and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has received £1.4m of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s rapid response to COVID-19.

Focusing on the ethics of data collection and use during a pandemic, UCL’s part in the project is being led by Dr Melanie Smallman (UCL Science & Technology Studies) and Professor James Wilson (UCL Philosophy).

The team has already fed into current government and policy considerations around possible immunity passports, arguing that besides possible discrimination, crucial ethical questions include: who owns the data and how any data collection infrastructures can be dismantled after the pandemic?

Dr Melanie Smallman said: "From track and trace apps and immunity passports, to algorithm driven school assessments and online worker surveillance, the COVID-19 crisis is pushing forward data-based technologies at an unprecedented speed and scale. In thinking through the ethical issues this presents - and encouraging policymakers to do likewise - we hope to help avoid the possibility of sleepwalking into a troubling future."

Professor James Wilson said: "As well as world-leading science, policymakers also need to draw on world-leading ethics if they want to build public trust and accountability in their actions to tackle COVID-19. We have already enabled a more informed discussion around mass testing for covid-19 and are now identifying issues and supporting ethical decision-making across public health, policy, medicine and education. "

The UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator, as its name suggests, will provide rapid evidence, guidance and critical analysis to inform policy and help improve decision-making. It will also support, inform and promote public debate around key ethical challenges, and ensures that ethical thinking is embedded at the core of future pandemic preparedness.

The initiative will initially address five key themes:

  • Data use: ethical challenges from large scale data collection, access and use
  • Foresight: current ethical challenges and preparedness for future crises
  • Prioritisation: the values informing access to resources such as vaccines
  • Public heath and inequalities: identifying values and ethical challenges to inform equitable policy and practice
  • Public values, transparency and governance: analysing attitudes and engagements to inform policy-making

By coordinating and focusing national investment in ethics research, the initiative will maximise the impact of ethical considerations across science, medicine, policy and society. This approach should help improve transparency and accountability as well as public trust in decision-makers.


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