Ethics and expertise in times of crisis: Learning from international varieties of ethics advice

This ESRC funded research project (2023-2026) focuses on how ethics advice is provided to Governments and policy makers during times of crisis, what this means for policy decision-making and ultimately, how this influences outcomes for citizens.



covid and elders Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay_500Our project builds on this to map out a future for ethical knowledge making and policy advice which is fit for both crisis and ‘ordinary’ times.

We will do this through 3 international cases (Australia, Germany, UK), testing existing understandings of how ethics advice is organised institutionally, mapping organisational networks, interviewing key actors, documentary analysis and witness seminars. 

The research findings will inform lessons for policy learning through an advisory and impact group, and developing training and resources for policy makers.

About the project

Governments are not currently following their own ethical advice during times of crisis, and we want to find out why, what this means for policy decision-making and ultimately, how this influences outcomes for citizens.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought these questions to the fore. National government strategies, public debate and public health outcomes have varied substantially. We will examine the specific role of ethics advice in processes of crisis management, navigating expert knowledge, building organisational networks and policy learning in shaping these international differences, using a case study method to compare UK, Germany and Australia. How can government ethics advice be organised in the future to improve institutional capacity and agility, strategic thinking, pluralistic forms of expertise, and responsiveness to diverse publics?

In October 2021, the UK’s independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics began to survey the ‘ecosystems’ of ethics advice in the UK, and leading ethicists in Germany have highlighted that key governmental lessons from the pandemic will only be learnt through considering new institutional arrangements. Australia developed an ethics framework to inform government decision-making relatively late during the pandemic. We will investigate the similarities and differences between the institutional organisation of ethics advice in these 3 cases, addressing a key gap in basic empirical and comparative research on government ethics advice.

Main project activities

1. How ethical advice for governments is organized across different national contexts 

2. How ethical dilemmas are navigated by experts and publics 

3. What is known about how and which ethics advice is used by governments in times of crisis 

4. What can be learned from this to support value-based judgments in policy decision-making 




Header image of Library_500Since the outbreak of the global Covid pandemic, there has been a rapid expansion of social science research on its societal, cultural, economic, political and personal impacts.

The nature of this research has been rapid and responsive, and in some cases have changed the research landscape, with ever more attention paid to the relationship between science and policy, and between academic advice, expertise, public opinion and government strategy. Less attention has been paid to researching the development, organisation and impact of advice which is based specifically on ethical knowledge and expertise.

This project will be the first to provide new empirical data on the institutional organisation of ethics advice across 3 different national contexts. We will provide new analysis of the contested nature of ethical expertise internationally, and respond to calls from social scientists to develop a new research agenda to inform policy learning processes. Most existing research deals with the ‘frontstage’ of different governments’ policy responses to the multiple ethical challenges posed by the pandemic. Our research aims to shed light on the ‘backstage’ processes of ethical advice.


Thinking_500Our analysis of the cases is informed by methods from Science and Technology Studies and Political Sociology.  We have developed a novel framework of criteria by which to identify and interpret a typology of international varieties in how ethical advice is organised institutionally. We will do this by mapping the organisational networks through which ethics advice is provided within the 3 national cases based on web searches and interviews with key organisations, actors and global bioethics observatories.

Comparing organisational networks in the UK with those in Germany and Australia will allow us to explain the different policy processes and outcomes which stem from fragmented vs centralised, spontaneous vs organised, conservative vs experimental, principle-based vs deliberative, embedded vs independent ethics advice. 


Cogs_500The project will produce a live archive of documentary material from bioethics advisory bodies, government advisory committee reports and parliamentary enquiries, and social media platforms. We will use discourse analysis methods to examine how ethics advisory organisations set the remit of ethics, at what moments and by what speed they respond to calls for advice, and how they interact with both science advice bodies, perceived public opinion and lobbying groups.

The project will organise 3 national ethics workshops using the innovative method of witness seminars to generate historical testimony and narrative evidence on our research questions. Finally we will convene an international advisory and impact group for the duration of the project to develop key recommendations to support decision-making for policy makers.

Research objectives

ask an expert Image_500Objective 1: Describe, compare and critically assess how ethics advice provided to different national governments is organised institutionally; 

Objective 2: Examine how the meaning of ethics is contested and navigated to decide when specific issues become explicitly ‘ethical’ in both expert and public discourse;

Objective 3: Identify the key knowledge gaps in relation to the provision and outcomes of ethical advice to governments in situations of crisis, urgency and uncertainty; 

Objective 4: Develop recommendations for how civil servants and policy-makers could be better equipped to navigate value-based decisions. 

Planned outputs

woman and child face mask marcinjozwiak at Pixabay_500The project will produce a range of academic publications aimed at policy, public administration and science, technology and society researchers. We are working on a book provisionally titled Learning from Ethics and Expertise in Times of Crisis

We will also produce policy resources and are keen to hear from policy makers, civil servants and ethics advisors who want to share their experiences and shape these.

Our partners

University of Birmingham Logo
University of Sheffield Logo
Karlschochschule International University Logo
Universitat of Bielefeld Logo
Nuffield Council on Bioethics Logo
The University of Melbourne Logo

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