Richard Ashcroft is Professor of Bioethics at Queen Mary University of London. In addition to that, he was the Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Incentives in Health, funded by the Wellcome Trust. Furthermore, he has been the Deputy Editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics and has served on the editorial boards of a number of other journals, including Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from genome editing to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is A Mathematician’s Apology by G H Hardy. It has been a pleasure to interview Richard and we hope you enjoy reading about his journey.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I work in bioethics: bioethics is the broad field of questions society asks about the moral, social, legal and political questions arising from a change in medicine and the life sciences. Some of these questions are about things which are quite old, and which have been very widely discussed for a long time (abortion, euthanasia, doctor-patient confidentiality, for instance) and some relate to technologies which are still developing or not even here yet. One of the things I am currently thinking about is “genome editing”, for instance. But I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about issues which are quite simple, medically speaking, but complex, socially speaking – for instance, tobacco and public health. What brings all these things together is health, on the one hand, and a hope that by careful analysis and discussion we can find an ethical consensus about how technologies and medical care can be applied best, on the other.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I’m a suburban boy. I was born in a big city (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) but was moved South and into the suburbs very young, and grew up in the commuter belt south-east of London. The countryside is somewhere I would be taken to see, and then taken home again!
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I was particularly good at mathematics, and indeed began my undergraduate career reading maths, but I was interested in most things. I was absolutely hopeless at art and sports.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: “He has terrible handwriting”. “He needs to focus more”. “He has an answer for everything”. (I don’t think this was meant as a compliment!)
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Halfway through my second year at College I realised that what I really wanted to study was philosophy; this was brought on by reading some books in literary theory my English Literature friends were talking about, and thinking that some kind of middle ground between that and maths might be just my cup of tea. Up to that point, I was – and to some extent remain – a generalist. I get bored if I am not on the lower slopes of some new learning curve.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: I’d always been interested in philosophy ever since I first began having religious doubts when I was 10 or 11, but I never really thought I would be able to study it. I was passionately in love with mathematics for many years, with all the tears and heartache of unrequited love. I had to work so hard to achieve only modest results, but that was what I needed to do. However, once I switched to philosophy, I won’t say it was easy, as it wasn’t, but it felt more natural and unforced, and at a certain point I just felt as if I was (intellectually) flying. I think when I was preparing for Finals and felt, let me at these exams, I’ll show you what I think.
I realise that these answers focus on university, but really I don’t think I’d “left school” until I was a graduate student. I approached university and school pretty much in the same way. All round curiosity bound up with trying to work out who I was and what I wanted to commit myself to.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at Cambridge; it was certainly my first choice. If you wanted to read maths it was the place to go. It still is, I think.
I’ve always been keen to prick pomposity about universities and ranking and status.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I like to annoy Cambridge friends by saying it was a modular degree (at the time modular degrees were associated with the Polytechnics, and I’ve always been keen to prick pomposity about universities and ranking and status – a good education is a good education, wherever you get it). In my first two years, I read Maths, before realising part way through that I wanted to switch to philosophy. Happily, there is a programme in History and Philosophy of Science, specially designed for students of natural sciences who want to move away from bench science and theory to look at the historical and intellectual foundations of science. It was not too much of a stretch for a maths student to get accepted into the programme, and indeed one of my courses, on the philosophy of physics, was pretty much carrying on where I had left off. But studying Freud and Foucault and Wittgenstein was massively different! Would I do it again? In one way I regret not completing the maths degree. But I can only tell you one thing: I would have gone to a few more parties. And I would have tried to be a bit less anguished about it all.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: My Director of Studies in maths, Tom Körner, was outstanding. Very bright, very funny, utterly committed both to maths and to teaching it. He worked us very hard, like an athletics coach (something of a tradition in Cambridge maths, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century). It was tough but totally inspiring. In History and Philosophy of Science, the whole department was pretty amazing, and I still keep in touch with several people who taught me there. But one teacher, in particular, stands out: Sir Geoffrey Lloyd. Here was a man at the very top of his profession, a real international star, as well as head of a College, who seemed to absolutely love teaching ancient Greek philosophy and science to undergraduates, and treated us all with the utmost respect. Awe-inspiring. He retired several years ago and is even more productive now than he was before retirement.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I was in love with learning. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. In some ways I was like Joseph Knecht in the Glass Bead Game (by Hermann Hesse) – this was my vocation and I was committed to it.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I carried on in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, moving straight on from undergraduate studies to a PhD. You couldn’t do that now, and I think that’s a change for the better. It would have done me good to do a Master’s somewhere else, see how other people approached my subject and other ways of working.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: “The Genealogy of Scientific Ethics”. A terrible title, inspired by Nietzsche’s masterpiece, On the Genealogy of Morals (I was very keen on Nietzsche at one time). What is it about? It’s about the idea that scientific inquiry is inherently ethical. One common view is that Science discovers facts about the world, but those facts are value neutral; meanwhile, Society applies those facts through technology and law and policy and regulation. I wanted to investigate whether this is really true. My answer was (and is) that no, it isn’t really true. Science is shot through with values, norms, choices, and the scientific life involves having a certain kind of moral character. That moral character can vary from place to place and time to time, and of course, there are different ways to be a scientist. But what is and is not acceptable is partly normative and partly sociological. Are facts neutral? Tricky question. Not as easy as you might think.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I would take more exercise, go to more parties, and get a more realistic idea of work-life balance. Only now in midlife do I realise I got into some bad habits which didn’t make me more productive but felt like they did, and were expected of me. And they really weren’t.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I am writing – or trying to write – a book about Utopias and biology and medicine. In particular: what kinds of dreams of the future are involved with our current aspirations for life sciences and medical research. And why are these dreams located in the health of the individual human body, rather than, say, the better ordering of society at large?
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: In the first ten years of my career I did a lot of work on the science and ethics of clinical trials. Some work I did on the ethical and philosophical foundations of “clinical effectiveness” (why we think some treatments work better than others and how we make decisions about what to use) I think is important. And people still read and cite it, so I guess they agree.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: I don’t think we have breakthroughs in my field. We sometimes get changes in the topics of conversation. I think currently we don’t talk enough in bioethics about climate change and its impacts. I think the recent results in elections in the USA and across Europe are going to be challenging for bioethics. I will leave it at that.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: If I were really flippant, I’d say I hope I would be one of them… I cannot answer this directly, as I have no idea what the world will be like in 2116. Part of me hopes we will be on Mars by then, and so the bioethics of human adaptation to life on Mars will be interesting. But I think the problems will be largely the same; the conversation will turn and turn again.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I hope I will have written a couple of books which might still be read after I’ve gone. But the main legacy is the work of my students. I want to get them started and see what they can show me. They are usually smarter than me.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I tweet frenetically. I should be writing, though. See above!
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: I will tell him privately. It’s personal. But I’ve given some clues above.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Read, read, read. Don’t get hung up on methodological disputes. But be critical of your own work, and receptive of that of others.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: An excellent question: I have a list of several that I press on people. But academically, I would say G H Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Anything by Jonathan Glover. A very fine philosopher, who is also a really decent human being, and who can write very well.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: It depends on what stage of the dinner party we are at! But a good Malbec never offends.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Richard Ashcroft you can check out his academic profile, personal website and Twitter page.