Stacy Carter: Thompson fellow and public health ethicist

Stacy Carter’s Thompson Equity Fellowship gave her the opportunity to fully commit to a field she was eager to sink her teeth into – public health ethics – and allowed her time to develop three successful funding applications.

By Tim Groenendyk

Stacy Carter

“I am now one of a small handful of people in Australia who is focusing primarily on public health ethics.” Dr Stacy Carter.

“The Thompson fellowship gave me the freedom to focus on research, and to do internationally significant, original work,” said Dr Stacy Carter.

“It has allowed me to move my career into an area where work is needed.”

That area of work is the ethics of health promotion and disease prevention.

Carter, Senior Lecturer in Qualitative Research in Health from the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (VELIM), School of Public Health, said that without the Thompson fellowship she wouldn’t have been able to put in the time required to become immersed in this field and contribute to it with confidence.

“The Thompson funding allowed me to employ a wonderful colleague to do my teaching in 2011. Thanks to this teaching relief, I was able to spend a whole year reading everything there was to read and getting a few papers up.

“I am now one of a small handful of people in Australia who is focusing primarily on public health ethics.”

Carter said there’s increasing recognition that diabetes, heart disease and cancer are going to be the world-wide health issues of this century.

“There’s also recognition that these diseases are mostly a product of the societies that we’re making for ourselves and the way we live in them.”

“My work focuses on the moral aspects of trying to do something about these diseases at a collective level.”

Tackling this problem is complicated, Carter explained, because it signifies great changes to the way people go about their ordinary lives. Alongside this are accusations of government interference in our lives – meddling from the ‘nanny state’.

Carter feels this perspective fails to address important questions regarding how we take responsibility for one another’s health in the community.

“We know that ‘being healthy’ is unfairly distributed in the population. Who should do something about that? And what should they do?” She asked.

“Should we all be working together to make our communities a better place to live, an easier place to be healthy?”

With the Thompson, Carter found time to apply for and secure an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship, The ethics of prevention and health promotion. This means she now has personal funding to focus on full time research for another four years.

Along with her colleagues she was also awarded two NHMRC project grants – one on the ethics of cancer screening and the other on unassisted smoking cessation.

This has allowed Carter and her colleagues to provide PhD scholarships to four outstanding scholars, who will join the next generation of people working on public health ethics problems.

“Something else that the Thompson allowed me to do was write an application for a visiting fellowship in the ethics of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, one of the world’s oldest and most important Schools of Public Health, and I am so lucky to have been invited to visit as a result.”

At the LSHTM she is meeting and presenting to academics who work in the area of public health and ethics, as well as taking a few trips to have discussions with researchers in Europe.

“People who work on ethics tend to value conversations, because that’s what doing ethics involves – having backwards and forwards conversations, in which differing points of view are defended and hopefully everyone learns something and changes their position a little.”

Creating these conversations is integral to Carter’s research methods, which highly favour qualitative forms of research that see “constant movement between empirical and theoretical work.”

“Qualitative research is good at generating original insights, engaging with moral questions, looking at how the organisations or neighbourhoods work, and how neighbourhoods and the people in them are related.”

“You can’t do good ethics without being grounded in the detail of everyday life, but everyday life can’t automatically tell you what’s right: sometimes our moral intuitions are bad, and empirical work tells you what is happening, not what should happen.”

“So you need to be critical, and draw on existing theory from moral and political philosophy and other disciplines.

“It’s the back and forth between theory and practice that makes research fun.”