By Jay Stone, Associate Director, External Affairs and Horizon Scanning, and Sophia McCully, Horizon Scanning Manager

Anticipating techno-social trends is a crucial task for policymakers aiming to promote innovation in a responsible, sustainable, inclusive, and fair way. However, we have identified that very few of the currently available methodologies for horizon scanning (H/S) and foresight enable a systematic anticipation of ethical issues linked to emerging technologies. Moreover, these approaches have often only been used in academic settings, meaning there is a need for them to be adapted to a policymaking context.

We believe there is an unmet need for a policy-tailored, ethically aware approach to H/S and foresight. By creating one, we can increase the likelihood of ethical implications being considered earlier in the policy development process and then seamlessly carried through. This would help to reduce the risk of ethics being forgotten, diminished, seen as a ‘tick box’ or at worst, a hinderance. And ultimately, this would facilitate our mission to place ethics at the centre of decisions regarding biomedicine and health, so we all benefit.

Over the next few months, we are working with Patience Kunonga, Sonia Garcia Gonzalez-Moral and Claire Eastaugh from the NIHR Innovation Observatory to complete a rapid scoping review that will formally assess the extent to which ethical considerations are embedded within existing horizon scanning and foresight methods. As mentioned, we believe through our own research that there are little to none, but we recognise that this robust assessment is needed and should it reveal something we have missed, we plan to explore whether we can build upon what has been made before.

Parallel to this, we are working with Federica Lucivero, Senior Researcher in Ethics and Data, Nuffield Department of Population Health, Ethox Centre to interview a select group of H/S and foresight leads working across UK Government departments. Our aim is to better understand the methods commonly used by these teams as well as the time and resources they invest in their exercises. We will then use these insights to draft a new approach that will bring ethics into the process in a timely way, without an increase to capacity or budgetary demands.

As part of our development process, we have formed an expert panel of people who have leading expertise in H/S and foresight. The panel, which includes representatives from the NIHR Innovation Observatory, Nuffield Foundation, Ada Lovelace Institute, School of International Futures, GoScience, Nesta, Wellcome, NHS England, Gesda, the Danish Board of Technology, POST, the Dubai Future Foundation and Council of Europe, will be presented with our drafted approach and asked for their feedback. We hope that their challenge and critique will help to ensure that whatever we produce is not only innovative, but also pragmatic and practical.

We are really excited about starting this project at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and look forward to publishing updates as our ideas take shape and things progress. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please do get in touch as we’d love to hear from you: /

Comments (3)

  • Jan Murdoch   

    Really interesting piece of work. I lead on the Emerging Technology Radar work for Defra. One area that I've revisited a few times in the past is the challenge of how technology can be quantified as sustainable - using Technology to Green. For example, does using IoT to minotor river levels reduce overall carbon emissions due to less manual inspections/visits, however, what about the co2 of manufacturing/assembling/running disposing of them. I would be really interested if you uncover anything in this space, or would like to collaborate on any thinking on this topic.

    • Nuffield Bioethics   

      Hello Jan, thank you for reading the blog and getting in touch. Jay and Sophia would love to talk to you about where the project is at currently and the work you do on the Radar. Would you mind dropping them a line?

      NCOB Team

  • Professor Robin Gill   

    Why are there no faith groups represented on your expert panel? For example, the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council (formerly the Board for Social Responsibility) has a long track record of producing expert, politically influential reports on ethical issues.

    • Nuffield Bioethics   

      Thank you for comment, Professor Gill, we are pleased to see your interest in our project. The members of our expert panel have not been selected for their ethical knowledge. They have been chosen to contribute their expertise in horizon scanning and foresight methodologies. We will be working alongside them to develop a new or adapted approach that sees ethics considered much earlier in the process.

      NCOB Team

  • Robert Dingwall   

    Pure self-promotion - but this may be worth looking at although it no longer seems to be available online from BBSRC - happy to email a copy to anyone interested:

    BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Scenario Tool (2011)

    This was subsequently developed into a public dialogue. A report on that is still available at

    • Nuffield Bioethics   

      Thank you for signposting this project, Robert. We’d love to know more. If you are able to contact Jay or Sophia to either arrange a chat or speak more to the tool itself, that would be appreciated.

      NCOB Team

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