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The role of the Council

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics examines and reports on ethical issues arising from developments in biological and medical research. The NCOB’s terms of reference are:

  • to identify and define ethical questions raised by recent developments in biological and medical research that concern, or are likely to concern, the public interest;
  • to make arrangements for the independent examination of such questions with appropriate involvement of relevant stakeholders;
  • to inform and engage in policy and media debates about those ethical questions and provide informed comment on emerging issues related to or derived from NCOB’s published or ongoing work; and
  • to make policy recommendations to Government or other relevant bodies and to disseminate its work through published reports, briefings and other appropriate outputs.

The Council is the deliberative body that drives the intellectual function of the organisation, deciding on the future work programme, strategic direction, function and membership of the Council. In particular, it is responsible for developing the five-year Strategic Plan; for maintaining an active horizon scanning programme; selecting topics (subject to approval by the Governing Board) and deciding on the approach to be taken; and for scrutinising and adopting reports and other outputs of the NCOB.


The Chair of Council is appointed by the funders and is accountable to the Chair of the Governing Board. The term of membership for the Chair is five years.

The Council is responsible for appointing its own members and electing the Deputy Chair. The Deputy Chair is appointed by asking for a brief statement from any interested members, outlining their suitability for the post and addressing the points set out in the job description. Council members are asked to vote in a secret ballot for their preferred candidate. The term of membership for the Deputy Chair is three years

The initial term for membership is three years, with the possibility of renewal for one to three years, which may be staggered, depending on an individual’s preferences, and the needs of the Council. The Council has the discretion to change the terms of membership should the need arise, but this should not be for a membership of more than three terms of three years.

Gifts and hospitality

The Council maintains a policy setting out the standards of behaviour related to bribery and other forms of inducement, and requires members to complete the Council’s Gift and Hospitality Register where necessary and declare any potential inducements /compromises under the normal provisions of the Conflicts of Interest policy.

Conflicts of interest

All members are required to fill out a Register of Interests and notify the Executive if there are any changes. Should a particular matter give rise to a conflict of interest, a member is required to inform the Chair in advance, and this may result in withdrawing from the discussions.

During the membership process, the Membership Committee and Council members should declare any relevant conflicts of interest when deciding on the short-list for interview and appointments.

Principles and standards

Principles of membership

  • Appointment - members are appointed to discharge the terms of reference and the primary activity of discussing bioethics in a deliberative context. Members are appointed for their knowledge, expertise or insight, which may derive from their professional or personal background or experience.
  • Interdisciplinarity - the work of the committee is interdisciplinary – members should strive to contribute in a way that is accessible to colleagues and contributes to shared and inclusive discussion. They should also be respectful of the contribution of other disciplines.
  • Impartiality - members are not appointed to represent a particular viewpoint, whether personal or professional, or the interests of a particular organisation, group or industry.

Standards of conduct

  • Integrity - members should not, by their speech or actions, do anything that may be expected to bring the NCOB into disrepute. They should regard themselves as discharging their duties in the public interest, and not seek to use membership to promote their private interests.
  • Confidentiality - members should keep confidential any information imparted to them in circumstances or on terms requiring them to be held in confidence.
  • Candour - members should deal honestly and openly; their advice should be truthful and complete to the best of their knowledge.
  • Courtesy and respect - members should respect their colleagues and staff and show them courtesy in all their dealings.

Positive obligations

  • Declarations of interest - members are expected to declare all relevant interests and to accept any determination of the Chair with regard to their participation in discussion of all or part of a particular matter. Relevant interests include not only financial interests, but interests, involvements or relationships that, in the view of the Chair, may cast doubt on the Council’s independence, which is important for the credibility of its advice.
  • Participation - members are expected to give priority to Council membership unless there is an unavoidable conflict with a necessary commitment entailed by their primary occupation. Members are expected to contribute, according to their knowledge and expertise, to all the business before the Council throughout their membership, not merely those issues that interest them or in which they have an interest.
  • Collective responsibility – members are expected to engage fully in collective consideration of the issues and should strive to reach consensus on matters requiring agreement and take collective responsibility. It will not always be possible to reach agreement; however, members should take collective responsibility for any final decision made.
  • In respect of outputs published in the name of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, such as the reports of working groups, members of Council who are not at the same time members of the working group should play their role in the review and adoption of these reports. They are free to express their personal opinions in such instances, as long as it is clear that this is done in a personal capacity and does not bring the NCOB into disrepute.
  • Representing the Council - when representing the NCOB, members should behave with integrity and respect. Members should make it clear when they are speaking on behalf of the NCOB and when they are expressing their personal opinions or those of others. In both instances, they should say or do nothing that would bring the NCOB into disrepute or call into question its independence.
  • Promoting the Council’s work - throughout their period of membership, members should seek and take suitable opportunities to promote the work of the NCOB among relevant audiences and in public. This includes taking the opportunity to refer to relevant NCOB activities and publications in professional and media interviews, unless to do so would interfere with the integrity of their presentation.