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Future of the UK's bioscience advisory body in doubt

17 February 2014
Appeared in BioNews 742

The future of the Government's advisory body on emerging scientific developments is in doubt after a decision has been made not to renew appointments when they come to an end in the coming months.

The Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee (ESBAC) was established in 2012, inheriting the work of the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) as the Government's main advisory body on the legal, ethical, social and economic implications of emerging healthcare technologies.

The HGC's final report (see BioNews 660) included a number of recommendations for ESBAC's future work, including a call to establish schemes to prevent genetic discrimination and to explore the use of predictive genetic testing in insurance. At the time, acting chair of the HGC, Professor Sarah Cunningham-Burley, said the HGC's work 'will continue to have purchase in the years ahead as ESBAC tackles the implications of bioscience for health and healthcare'.

ESBAC is chaired by Professor Sir Alasdair Breckenridge and has a broader remit than human genetics. Its membership includes experts in social sciences, law and biotechnology, as well as representation from all UK health departments to which it provides advice. Its function is to help inform Government policy in healthcare sciences, including 'horizon scanning' for new developments, analysing emerging biotechnology and providing a forum to discuss issues that cut across Government. Specifically, it currently operates focus groups on dementia, 'innovative governance' and 'technologies to optimise treatment'.

Minutes from its meeting on 30 September 2013 suggest there was some concern about ESBAC's work. 'Members expressed the view that there had been little feedback to ESBAC from [the Department of Health], in terms of ESBAC being asked to address specific questions and whether the Committee to date had met the Department's expectations', it said. 'The chair noted that the Committee had generated most of its work. A member raised the question of the direction of ESBAC as the landscape had changed since ESBAC was first established'.

Commenting on the recent decision, a Department of Health spokesperson said: 'The Department is keen to develop a more flexible approach to considering ethical and social aspects of health science than a standing committee format allows. We will continue to ensure there are appropriate fora where emerging issues of health science can be discussed'.

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