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Posted on October 3, 2010 at 5:55 PM
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Each year about this time I find myself doing two things with my peers. Both result in depressing outcomes. First, I ask how many are planning to attend our field’s only national meeting in bioethics per se, the annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. This year, I figured this would be a home run. The rooms are relatively inexpensive, the program is great, and the meeting is being held in San Diego, California. Who doesn’t want to go to San Diego in late October — particularly by comparison to some recent choice cities for the meeting? The ASBH meeting is, I intone annually, the only occasion at which you can meet and exchange in serious discussion with the people in basically the entire field of bioethics, at which you can learn about all of the educational programs and journals and websites and recent books in the field – and talk to the authors and editors and graduate studies directors. It is the single place where graduate students in the field gather in any numbers (more on that later) and it is the best place to find collaborators for, e.g., research projects, ethics committee or consultation consortia members, conferences, or for that matter just to make new acquaintances and see friends whom you’ve never laid eyes on before. And every year I get the same replies: “when is that again?”; “I’ve never been before, I’m not really a bioethicist”; “it’s too expensive”; “I have to do another conference that month”…or my least favorite, “I’m not really part of that crowd.”

Some years ago now, when I was on the board of directors ASBH, Paul Root Wolpe as incoming president delivered his address on the state of the society, and a manifesto: the Society should have 3,000 members by [date x]. I was somehow linked to this effort, and whatever it is I was supposed to do, I did poorly I’m sure. But his goal was, he argued at the outset, accomplishable. And you should be shocked that there are only 3,000 members of the professional society of what is decidedly among the fastest growing areas of academic concern in the world. Shocked because people on ethics committees do not think it necessary or even a desirable “extra” to be a member or participant in the meeting of ASBH, and they constitute tens of thousands of people. Shocked because the 1,500 or so members (if that) of ASBH (by my last estimation) represent a fraction of the academics who do bioethics full-time in their teaching if not research. Shocked because scientists and policymakers and industry leaders and consumer and patient advocates don’t think it necessary to join. Ok maybe not shocked. But I hope it bothers you, because what it represents is the inability of our band of members to propagate such that there are lots of others out there who see issues in ASBH as issues for bioethics in general, and because the failure of ASBH to thrive at the level of other professional societies in comparably sized disciplines is incredible when juxtaposed to the readership of bioethics’ websites and journals and the countless articles about bioethics in the top journals of medicine and science. It amounts to a collective “we care a lot about bioethics, but for [fill in the blank] reason we just don’t see ourselves as part of the society of bioethics.” Some might say this is about professionalization or failures of marketing. But they’d be wrong. It is about the inability of bioethics’ centers and institutes and journals and websites to convey that bioethics is not practiced solely through jobs and peer reviewed scholarship and cannot be practiced in isolation, or at least was never practiced in isolation during the years in which it incubated as a large group of very concerned scholars and others who wanted to work together in what can only be described as a movement that only works when it has the ultimate town-gown partnership. Not lecture series in libraries. Collective action in which ethics programs grow deliberately by building memberships not only in their own but in the nation’s bioethics organization.

What really bugs me though is the failure with students. I have made a practice of forcing students to attend ASBH. For years I did the “meet the professor” sessions at ASBH, which were full, but there were more people in my intro to bioethics class at penn than attended the last “meet the professor” session at which I had a table. But the fact is that the people attending those sessions have had, at least in my anecdotal observation, disproportionate career success – certainly a correlation and not in any way caused by those tables of discussion for an hour. When I was a graduate student, I had a credit card I called “I hope Visa,” which I filled in three years with the cost of going to the then Society for Health and Human Values meetings, because my advisors John Lachs and Richard Zaner both told me that my being exposed to my future peers, to those whom I was then citing in my papers, and to the dynamics of the society and interaction that characterizes professional bioethics was invaluable. They Were Right. I entreat you…if you have student, get a room package together in the Gas Light district for them to shack up en masse inexpensively so that the undergrads and graduate students show up to ASBH. Offer extra credit. Put your own money on the line if necessary to help get anyone whom you have any hope of seeing on the job market onto a cheap plane ticket. These meetings are the key … and if they are not, they must become so … to professional futures for them and for their network of possible employers and teachers. There is a quiet paradigm shift and generational turnover going on in bioethics. If you are at the point in your career where you are about to move into the senior ranks, don’t assume that someone else is taking care of this in the Program Director’s Association…they can’t. Only you can. Thus endeth the sermon 🙂

Glenn McGee

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