Prof Anton van Niekerk, a Distinguished Professor in Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has been invited to participate in a debate on research centres in Rome, Italy, by the Vicariate of Rome and the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR).
Van Niekerk will participate in the debate Research, Development and Common Good: the Role of Research Centres along with other distinguished professors and experts from countries like the United Kingdom, Poland and Canada. The debate forms part of a greater forum called The Jubilee of Universities and of Research Centres and of Institutions of the Artistic Higher Education which is taking place in September this year.
"I was quite surprised when I received the invitation," says Van Niekerk as he talks about the upcoming debate.
Over the years Van Niekerk's research has mainly concentrated on the areas of bioethics, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of the social sciences. As a researcher rated by the National Research Foundation as someone with considerable international recognition, he has done extensive research in the areas of the moral problematic related to HIV/Aids in Africa, ethical issues related to new genetic technologies, moral theories, the history and social functions of bioethics in South Africa, research ethics, models of rationality, hermeneutics, contemporary models of religious faith and the pragmatist notion of religion.
Van Niekerk is also one of the pioneers in the establishment of bioethics as an academic discipline in South Africa and was one of the founding members of the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA), first serving on its board from 2000 and then taking over as Chairman in 2003. From 2007 to 2012, he was Director of the International Association of Bioethics and served as a member of the Ethics Committee of the South African Medical Research Council from 2001 to 2013. Since 2009, he is the Chairperson of the Research Ethics Committee of Stellenbosch University's Senate. In 2013 he was appointed as a member of the National Health Research Ethics Council (NHREC) by the South African Minister of Health.
He has written, edited and co-authored 19 books and more than 150 peer reviewed articles and book chapters. His most recent books include Ethics and Aids in Africa: the challenge to our thinking (2006), Geloof sonder sekerhede (2005, with a second, thoroughly revised edition in 2014) and Rasionaliteit en relativisme (1994). Van Niekerk is also a former editor of the South African Journal of Philosophy and has been a distinguished guest professor at the universities of East Carolina (USA), Utrecht and Radboud (Netherlands), and Linköping (Sweden), Louvain (Belgium), Cape Town and the Witwatersrand.
The theme for this year's forum will be Knowledge and Mercy: The Third Mission of the University. Van Niekerk's own talk, he says, will therefore focus on the broad theme of technological innovation and moral responsibility.
"I have done extensive research about the ethics of biotechnology and human improvement. There is also enormous interest in this field, in particular because of the amazing potential, of biotechnology – from new medicines that have been developed and that can zoom in on the most minute detail of our biological composition to how to lengthen the normal lifespan of human beings," explains Van Niekerk.
"Of course there are also fears that extending human life can lead to the development of a new race of "post-humans". There are also widespread fears that the apparent striving for human perfection via these new technologies will foster renewed intolerance as well as discrimination against disabled persons. I can understand that fear," says van Niekerk, "however, I also believe that we can develop a better world in the process, in particular with relation to the biomedical terrain. The efforts to correct human disability do not imply a rejection of or discrimination against disable people".
He cites vaccination as an example of how advances in science have enhanced the human race via technological innovation.
"One of the most obvious ways we have improved the world we live in is via the improvement of vaccination methods," says Van Niekerk. "Years ago when we first started doing stem cell research, many people were worried that it would lead to the artificial breeding of embryos for stem cell research. New developments since then have shown that our ability to manipulate cells and even reprogram bodily cells will make the need for embryos to produce stem cells unnecessary.
While research has developed, so has the research ethics committees governing those processes. All new medical and scientific research are subjected to committee reviews and their requirements are quite strict, says Van Niekerk.
"These committees allow us to think about how we promote what is good about advances in the biomedical field, how advances in medical and biological sciences can benefit people and, at the same time, ensure that scientists meet the required ethical standards when conducting their research. Because of these committees and research about bioethics, there is also a stronger focus on the ethical training of medical personnel - something that did not happen 20 to 30 years ago."
As part of his talk, Van Niekerk will also focus on what responsible scientific research entails and specifically how one applies such responsibility within research units in universities.
"This will be a very interesting experience," says Van Niekerk. "I have to admit that I have always been interested in Catholicism even though I am not Catholic myself. This conference is not only a great opportunity to build up new contacts and extend my network, but I will also be able to meet the Pope. This is not the kind of thing that happens to one every day, so I am quite excited and very honoured to be awarded this opportunity."
Photo: Prof Anton van Niekerk, a Distinguished Professor in Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Applied Ethics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has been invited to participate in a debate on research centres in Rome, Italy, by the Vicariate of Rome and the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR) in September this year.