An acclaimed Dalhousie University bioethicist and scholar has been named one of two recipients for this year’s Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize.

On Monday morning it was announced that Françoise Baylis had received the social sciences and humanities prize, an award valued at $50,000. 

A Dalhousie University news release described the award as honouring Baylis’s “outstanding achievements” in academic research centring on the “complexities of how health-care ethics intersect with technology, policy and practice.”

Past recipients of the Molson Prize include Lawrence Hill, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Denys Arcand, Alex Colville, Northrop Frye, Glenn Gould, and Marshall McLuhan.

“It genuinely is a bit overwhelming. Partly because there are only two prizes given out a year. And when you look at some of the other recipients, I have to say I don’t feel like I’m in their league at all. So in that sense, it’s really daunting,” Baylis said in a phone interview from Paris on Friday evening. 

“The flip side of that is I’m obviously really honoured. For me, what’s really in the forefront of my mind is that hopefully this valorizes the type of research that I do… It’s not well appreciated within the academic setting for what I think it can contribute to society… I’m hopeful that it signals an appreciation for work in that space.”

Baylis, Distinguished Research Professor, Emerita, described her work as being “at the interface of theoretical work and real world practice.” Dalhousie University described Baylis as “an influential voice in the field of bioethics” and a leader in “advocating for the ethical application of science, with the goal of bettering society.” 

What kind of world do I want to live in?

In much of her work, Baylis asks the question, ‘What kind of world do I want to live in?’ 

Over the years, she’s concluded that we spend too much time “in the weeds” thinking about contemporary problems and solutions without having a clear understanding of the bigger picture or the long-term goal. 

Not having that clarity, she said, can lead to missteps. 

You might see that in terms of some of the responses we’ve had to some of the challenges we’re currently facing, like climate change. For example, would you have a different response to that if you weren’t just looking at, ‘Well, how will I deal with the methane problem?’ Or ‘How will we deal with fossil fuels?’ 

If you’re really trying to say genuinely, ‘What kind of world do I want to live in?’ And then you say, ‘I want to live in a world where my kids think they have a future. I want to live in a world where we’re not going to have climate refugees and people displaced.’ If you start having those kinds of bigger picture answers, I think it might drive you to different kinds of solutions because you have a vision that you’re working towards. I’m thinking it might be easier to get the public behind you with those kinds of visions rather than the details of certain narrow practices.

‘To make the powerful care’

The passion Baylis brings to her research is rooted in considerations of social injustice. She has long been driven by her professional mantra, “to make the powerful care.” She recalls being a young person determined to change the world.

“I learned that I can’t do that, and I can’t do that because of many things. But one of them is I don’t have power within the system,” she said. 

Instead, she devoted her time and energy into determining who has power, making them care enough to take on the work. 

“Maybe in a particular case it’s a certain group of civil servants. They’re the people that ultimately are going to push a particular agenda, get it to a Member of Parliament, a passionate member of Parliament will take it further. Well, I have to empower that civil servant. I have to get information to them in a way that is accessible,” she said. 

“What can I do to help them understand the problem, become passionate about the problem, and take it to the next level? It’s a particular kind of understanding of how I might be able to make a contribution, which I think is a lot more modest than a lot of young people are at the beginning, but hopefully more realistic.”

The recipient of numerous awards and honours, Baylis is also a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia. She’s authored 19 books, more than 150 academic articles, and many public forum submissions. 

Her 2019 book Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing, explores what she describes as a “new era” of human evolution where scientists can modify our genes. 

“Designer babies, once found only in science fiction, have become a reality,” the book jacket states.

‘Thinking about who might be harmed’

Baylis said much of her work is initially motivated by seeing something that makes her angry. She finds herself questioning how she can fix it.

I go down a little rabbit hole to try to figure that out. If I were to pull back, I would be saying that especially when I look at the development of emerging technologies, everybody can see the benefits. That’s why there’s enthusiasm, right? That’s why we’re barrelling ahead trying to get these technologies out into the world. 

And I can see those benefits as well. But I sometimes worry that in our effort to move forward, and sometimes very quickly, more quickly, I think, than is necessary, we don’t spend enough time thinking about who might be harmed because we’ve got good intentions.

Baylis’s leadership on issues including research involving humans, assisted human reproduction, public health, and heritable genetic modifications has led to her frequent participation in groups that shape policy. 

The groups that have benefitted from her involvement include the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing, and the WHO Global Guidance Framework to Harness the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences. 

She was also a member of the planning committees for the First International Summit on Human Gene Editing (2015) and the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing (2023).

‘A legitimate career path’

Baylis hopes the recognition she receives from winning the Molson Prize encourages others to consider doing the same kind of work. 

“Along the way, I had mentors who were pushing against the grain, and I guess I’d like that to be recognized,” she said. 

“I’m hoping that with this honour, other people can see it as a legitimate career path.”

The Canada Council awards two Molson prizes to distinguished Canadians each year, one in the social sciences or humanities and the other in the arts.

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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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