by Keisha Ray, PhD
If you are a bioethicist who even casually engages with social media, specifically Twitter, you cannot miss the frequent posts and tweets where a bioethicist and/or academic physician announces that they are leaving academia. Their reasons for leaving academia typically range from salary complaints, dissatisfaction with their institution’s administration, being overworked, not having the resources needed to do their job well, a lack of job security, marginalization, and other complaints, often contributing to their experiences of burnout and mental distress. I haven’t done any formal research but from my casual observations, as the pandemic progresses, it appears that I am seeing more resignation announcements, likely because the pandemic has worsened these issues and added others such as dissatisfaction with their institutions’ COVID-19 policies (e.g. lack of masking, vaccine mandates, virtual learning, etc). Although I’m sure others are also leaving academia, for instance, I’ve noticed an uptick in graduate students announcing they are leaving their respective programs, there is no question that faculty are leaving their academic positions and we are losing good bioethicists. So what is lost when bioethicists leave or are pushed out of academia? In short, a lot.
When good bioethicists leave academia, for whatever reason, we as a profession lose their potential contributions. We lose out on the research that they would have produced that could have changed the way we think about, teach, and practice bioethics. We lose out on the research that could have changed the kind of care that those of us who are also health care providers give to our patients.
When good bioethicists leave academia the dialogue that is imperative to our field fundamentally changes. We no longer have an abundance of interlocuters to challenge our beliefs and provide positive feedback on how to make our work better. When good bioethicists are no longer our colleagues we lose out on the innovation they could have brought to the field that could have inspired us to be better bioethicists.
Our students also miss out when good bioethicists leave the profession as the innovation they bring to research, they often bring to the classroom as well. Students miss out on their expertise, learning from their work and experiences, and interacting with them at conferences. Students miss out on their mentorship and guidance. As a result, the future of bioethics is fundamentally changed because there are less people guiding students who will one day become our colleagues. Whether they even stay in bioethics long enough to become our colleges is affected when good bioethicists resign.
Practically, when good bioethicists leave academia it makes it harder for those of us who are still around. There are less people to share the load of work like teaching and mentorship. There are less people to fulfill leadership positions, serve on national committees and students’ dissertation committees, mentor students, and the other general work that it takes to foster our profession.
Lastly, I can’t help but notice many of the bioethicists I see resigning are people of color, often times women of color. This is to the great detriment of our profession. When academics of color leave the profession, we miss out on their perspective on bioethics and their work, which often shakes up the status quo of bioethics (which is sorely needed). Our students miss out on their contributions to the field and the classroom. In particular, our students of color miss out on their mentorship, the feeling of understanding and being seen that someone with shared experiences can offer marginalized or underrepresented students. They miss out on seeing someone that looks like them in the field, which could also deter them from pursuing professional bioethics. In general, we miss out on their unique contributions. Many academics of all races often complain about the uniformity and whiteness of bioethics but these features of bioethics will never be any different if we don’t retain the very people who could change that.
When good bioethicists leave academia we are left with a lot of what ifs. What if these people got the support they needed to stay in bioethics? What contributions could these people have made if they weren’t emotionally exhausted and physically tired? What research could these people produce if they weren’t marginalized? What would bioethics look like if these people were our colleagues and teachers?
When good bioethicists leave academia, bioethics is made all the worse and everyone loses.