Bioethicist Maxwell Smith named first Chair in Applied Public Health at Western

Western Faculty of Health Sciences  Maxwell Smith is a prominent bioethicist who
Western Faculty of Health Sciences Maxwell Smith is a prominent bioethicist who was named Chair in Applied Public Health by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, one of just 12 in Canada. (Frank Neufeld photo)
Maxwell Smith, a leading bioethicist who advises on pressing and complex questions in health ethics and justice, has been named Chair in Applied Public Health by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

He is one of 12 across the country - and the first at Western - to receive the honour.

-I am thrilled,- Smith said.

-This Chair will be dedicated to applied ethics in health emergencies. I’m ecstatic our largest health research funder has recognized how crucial research in this area is and that we get to lead it here at Western over the next six years.-

Smith, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences , is a prominent voice on public health ethics. He was called upon frequently at home and abroad to advise on ethical dilemmas during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the turbulent early days as the world scrambled to respond to an emerging and fast-changing threat.

An ethics advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO), he also gave guidance to numerous health bodies and COVID-19 leadership tables in Canada.

Smith specializes in the ethics of infectious disease - including preparing for public health emergencies - and the intersection of health equity with social justice.

- It means a lot to be able to represent Western and our public health community in this priority research area. This is such a pivotal time to be doing this research as we continue to experience the burden of COVID, debate what was ’right’ or ’wrong’ over the last four years of the pandemic, see an increase in measles cases and work to prepare for future public health threats,- he said.

Smith also explores other emerging issues in the field, including organ donation, pregnancy termination, health care decision-making and artificial intelligence.

Chair program seeks -innovative health solutions

-This prestigious award not only acknowledges Max’s expertise but also underscores the impact of his work in public health ethics, both in Canada and around the world,- said Jayne Garland , dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences.

-I’m thrilled that Max is the first to receive this award at Western.- - Jayne Garland , dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences

Applied Public Health Chair program, funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), was launched in 2006, with three cohorts announced in the years since.

"Public health leaders cannot tackle the challenges facing our country without the valuable knowledge gained through scientific research. By working with key decision makers, the Chairs will provide critical, applied, evidence-based information that will shape the programs and initiatives that support the health of all people living in Canada,- Minister of Health Mark Holland said.

Smith is partnering with local and global health leaders, including London’s medical officer of health Dr. Alex Summers, the associate chief medical officer of health of Ontario Dr. Michelle Murti and members of the ethics and governance unit at the WHO.

"That collaboration will ensure the research activities of my Chair are responsive to the practical ethical challenges faced by public health policymakers and practitioners from the local to the global levels, and that we produce new knowledge and guidance to navigate thorny ethical issues in response to public health emergencies,- Smith said.

Public health emergencies key focus

He will receive $1.15 million to support his time and research over the next six years.

Smith will investigate ethics in health emergencies, one of his longstanding research priorities.

-It will allow my collaborators and me to study the most significant ethical challenges we’ve faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and generate insights about how to navigate similar challenges during future public health emergencies.-

He will tackle complicated but vital questions, including:
  • When is it ethically justified for governments to use coercive measures, like vaccine mandates, to protect the public’s health?
  • When is it ethically justified for governments to use non-pharmaceutical interventions - such as school closures, stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions - to curb the spread of communicable diseases?
  • How should scarce resources like vaccines, tests, therapies, masks and ICU beds, be allocated ’fairly’ and who should be prioritized to receive them?

A Western Research Chair in Public Health Ethics , Smith is also associate director of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy.

He has appointments in the department of philosophy, the Schulich Interfaculty Program in Public Health, the department of epidemiology and biostatistics, the Centre for Research on Health Equity and Social Inclusion , and the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.