PFC Spotlight: Academic Fellow Alumnus Jeffrey Skopek
Jeffrey Skopek was an Academic Fellow for the 2011-2014 academic years, during which he wrote extensively on anonymity, differentiating it from privacy in articles that reveal its importance both as a tool in the production of wide range of public goods and as a right that can be invoked against new technologies of surveillance and identification. Currently, Dr. Skopek is a Lecturer (the UK equivalent of Assistant Professor) in Medical Law, Ethics, and Policy at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law, as well as the Deputy Director of its Centre for Law, Medicine, and Life Sciences. His current research focuses on legal and ethical challenges in precision medicine and big data.
When did you first become interested in health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics?
I trace my interest in these issues to my time in high school, when I first became interested in animal rights and environmental philosophy. These interests grew, during my freshman year at Stanford, into a broader interest in ethical status of the non-human world and humans whose status is contested. In the following years, I took several courses in bioethics, as well broader courses in related issues of philosophy, religious studies, and history. It was during this period that I decided that I might best pursue these interests through a career in legal academia, but that I should first develop my background in the history and philosophy of science. Throughout my following years of study—pursuing a Masters and PhD at the University of Cambridge, followed by a JD at Harvard—my interests in bioethics and health law developed and deepened.
What attracted you to the Academic Fellowship program at the Petrie-Flom Center?
The fellowship program offered unparalleled support for an aspiring legal scholar—support that took numerous forms. First, there was the financial aspect: the fellowship provided funding to pursue independent research and writing without imposing other significant obligations in return. Second, there was the mentorship: the then Faculty Co-Directors of the program, I. Glenn Cohen (current Faculty Director) and Ben Roin, were known to be deeply committed to the academic and professional development of their fellows. Third, there was the rich research environment provided by the center, the law school, and the broader interdisciplinary community working on related issues at Harvard and nearby universities.
What was the focus of your Academic Fellowship research, and how did Petrie-Flom community assist you in completing it?
I started my fellowship with a research project on the rights of biobank donors to limit the use of their biospecimens in research. My project quickly evolved, however, when I learned that researchers could perform research that violated the terms of the donor’s consent by anonymizing their biospecimens. I had previously thought of anonymity as a right claimed by people seeking to remain anonymous (for example, in the First Amendment context), rather than as an imposed means of extinguishing their rights. Exploring this tension led me to a much broader research project about the difference between anonymity and privacy and the wide-ranging and varied uses of anonymity in our law.
There are countless ways in which the PFC community contributed to this research. I will highlight just three. First, Glenn and Ben encouraged me to pursue my expanding interest in anonymity despite the fact that a clear end-point was not in sight—a risk that paid off with articles that I could have never planned in advance. Second, I regularly received invaluable feedback on my research in conversations with Glenn and Ben, my cohort of fellows (especially W. Nicholson Price and Matt Lawrence), and Einer Elhauge (the Founding Faculty Director of the center). Third, the fellowship provided exposure to methodological approaches that were different from my own, especially in law and economics, which greatly enriched my research.
What were your key takeaways from the Academic Fellowship? Have you continued to interact with the Center and/or its affiliates since completing your fellowship?
I came out of the fellowship with a variety concrete takeaways, such as new publications, a research agenda for a future, and a tenure-track position at the University of Cambridge—as well as many that are intangible, such as the ways in which the fellowship shaped my thinking, and the valuable interactions that I continue to have with the Petrie-Flom community.
Since completing my fellowship, I have interacted with the Petrie-Flom community in many different ways. For example, I have attended multiple Petrie-Flom conferences and have just finished writing a chapter for the forthcoming edited collection on big data and health. I have interacted with Glenn in a wide range of contexts—ranging from a precision medicine conference that I organized in Hong Kong, to a planned co-authored article on animal rights. And I have been in regular contact with Timo Minssen (a PFC Visiting Scholar from the University of Copenhagen who I met during my fellowship), including about an application for a $5 million grant that would in part fund a collaboration between all three of our centers.
How has the Academic Fellowship influenced your career?
The fellowship clearly provided the foundation for my academic career. Without the fellowship, I would not have developed the publications necessary to obtain my tenure-track position at the University of Cambridge; the background that I bring to building its new Center for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences; or the broad research agenda that I am now pursuing, including my current project on big data, privacy and precision medicine.
Learn more about the Petrie-Flom Center's Academic Fellowship program on our website!fellowship i. glenn cohen privacy research spotlight