Towards a Neuroethical Ethos: A Case Study in Reframing Neuroethics Education for Engineers and Researchers

By Juhi Farooqui, Sarah Dawod, and Dev Sarma 

Image courtesy of Farooqui et al.
This piece is part of a series of featured posts from the 2020 International Neuroethics Society Meeting. It is based on an abstract titled “Reframing Neuroethics Education for Engineers and Researchers: A Case Study at the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs” that won the award for the "Best Overall Video/Media.”

Do researchers care about neuroethics?

Easy answer: Of course they do! 

A critical modifier: …If you give them the chance.

Irrespective of career stage or research area, every researcher has professional interactions and relationships with ethics. These can include IRB or IACUC approval processes, ethics training workshops, funding-agency-mandated ethical review standards, or classroom-based coursework. Unfortunately, these interactions are usually external to researchers’ day-to-day activities, and often feel removed from “actual research.” For most researchers, this is what “ethics” entails – a regulatory step or didactic force externally imposed on their work.

What if, instead, ethics could be a natural part of the research environment? 

In our work at the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs, we aim to make it so by cultivating what we call a neuroethical ethos. We do this via a discussion-based seminar series, designed to create space for researchers to explore their ideas and values around neuroethics.

RNEL

The Rehab Neural Engineering Labs (RNEL) is a consortium of 12 research groups at the University of Pittsburgh. It is a hub for interdisciplinary and collaborative research in neural engineering, ranging from cortical interfaces to spinal cord stimulation to non-invasive neurostimulation, aimed toward applications in rehabilitation for spinal cord injury, limb loss, stroke, and more. As a center for neurotechnology research, RNEL’s core mission frequently brings us in contact with neuroethics issues, ranging from research ethics to broad societal impacts.

Researchers at RNEL come from various backgrounds, including clinical medicine, engineering, physical therapy, and neuroscience. In many of these fields, “ethics” represents a regulatory step. Its role is primarily in approving study protocols or research plans (de Melo Martin et al., 2007). This can lead to a perception of ethics as a necessary but annoying hindrance on the path to doing research, pitting ethics against research progress. 

Ethics education, meanwhile, is often didactic, taking the form of mandatory training modules or coursework (Krause et al., 2018, Newberry, 2004, Vertrees et al., 2012). These avenues are one-directional and rarely create space for co-consideration of research and ethics, making ethics at best a side interest, and at worst a curricular checkbox.

These features of science and engineering education present a challenge: how do we overcome preconceptions to promote deep engagement with ethical principles in an engineering research lab?

Neuroethical ethos

Our answer to this challenge is to work on cultivating a neuroethical ethos. We define a neuroethical ethos as a research culture wherein neuroethics is woven into the fabric of how researchers think about, approach, and implement their research. The goal is for it to be natural for researchers to consider the ethical principles that relate to their work at every stage of research, from ideation through experimentation to communication and onwards. Critically, the cultivation of this ethos is internally driven, manifesting from the insights that come out of a regular practice of engaging with neuroethical principles as a community.

Our team reflects the culture we envision, comprised of graduate students from RNEL and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Bioethics and Health Law and a postdoctoral fellow from RNEL. Our combined backgrounds include neuroscience, bioengineering, bioethics, and computer science. In this way, our project is a grassroots effort -- researchers engaging fellow researchers on relevant ethical principles. 

Our approach

How does one go about cultivating a neuroethical ethos?

We see this process as a cycle with four major parts: Topic Identification, Dialogue/Synthesis, Ownership, and Application.

Image courtesy of Farooqui et al.

Topic Identification

In the topic identification phase, lab members recognize and identify relevant topics, issues, and concepts in neuroethics that are applicable to their own research. Initially, this responsibility is taken on primarily by the seminar leaders (i.e. our group). However, everyone is welcome to suggest topics of interest. We aim to promote an environment where all members of the group freely engage in this process unprompted, identifying topics they want to explore in discussion seminars as well as identifying issues and concepts to consider in their own research process. In developing the first seminar series, we identified topics in four major clusters: Rights and Experience of Participants, Equity and Structural Barriers, Translation and Dissemination, and Future Concerns of the Field. 

We identify topics in a dynamic and responsive manner, incorporating principles and issues highlighted by external organizations such as the NIH BRAIN Initiative or Columbia University’s NeuroRights Initiative, as well as current social and political circumstances and the needs of our lab. For example, in the past few months we prioritized the section on Equity and Structural Barriers after mass protests following the police murders of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and others galvanized lab members to take a more active role in advocating for racial justice. This section was designed to align with other equity and inclusion initiatives within the lab.

Image courtesy of Farooqui et al.

These topics allow our fellow researchers to take a deep dive into their own perspectives, beliefs, and biases regarding research, technology, research participants, and equity.

Dialogue/ Synthesis

The heart of our approach (inspired in part by the SPECS project developed at the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington (Tubig & McCusker, 2020)) is dialogue. We hold monthly semi-structured discussions, inviting colleagues to join a completely voluntary, open discussion around one of the identified topics. Each session includes a few key components which facilitate free and informed dialogue:

  • Topic expert
    • an invited guest with relevant academic expertise to help frame the philosophical underpinnings of the issue and provide context (e.g. philosophical conceptions of consent)
  • Site expert
    • a lab member who interacts with the practical application of the concept to provide on-the-ground context (e.g. consent procedures at RNEL)
  • Background reading (optional)
    • relevant reading material for discussion preparation or further interest
  • Guiding Questions
    •  a set of guiding discussion questions that provides structure to the small-group dialogues that discussion participants take part in

These elements come together in an open dialogue, where people engage as agents and work together to cultivate their understanding of neuroethical principles. All participants are treated as peers who can learn from one another. Lived expertise is given equal weight to academic expertise. The discussion carries no penalties or expectations, allowing researchers to participate fully and without fear of consequences. This provides a space to think through ethical principles and problems deeply and freely, as well as a platform for constructive disagreement and debate.

Ownership

Our framework challenges the perception of ethics as regulatory/didactic by nature. Instead, it promotes an organic emergence of neuroethical principles through dialogue. By articulating and exploring the relationship between ethical principles and their own goals and values, lab members can discover how their beliefs come to bear on the topic of discussion. This allows them to take ownership of the ethical principles being discussed. We believe that this sense of ownership will ultimately lead to application of these neuroethical principles in their research.

Application

Image courtesy of Juhi Farooqui
The challenge we began with was to overcome the constraints of regulatory/didactic ethics to make ethics a natural part of the research process. The end goal of this challenge lies in the application of neuroethical principles to everyday research.

By allowing researchers to take ownership of their own beliefs, ideas, and convictions regarding neuroethical principles, we aim to create an environment in which thinking and talking about ethics in direct relation to research is normal and natural - i.e. a neuroethical ethos.

This framework, in turn, can empower researchers to apply their understanding of these topics into all stages of their research. When lab members internalize ethical principles as an element of their own value system, they will organically begin to consider these principles in the day-to-day work of research, from developing research questions to designing and implementing experiments to analyzing and communicating results. This can also empower researchers to develop their own ethical questions and identify new topics to explore, thus completing our cycle.

In this way, a voluntary, dialogue-based program can create the conditions for a more ethically engaged lab culture, one that can have positive resonances throughout a field. 

Final Thoughts

Our insights so far, based on feedback collected from lab members, are encouraging: lab members are engaged, they enjoy the conversations, and they sustain an interest in participating. In some cases, participants even come out able to identify concrete direct changes they can make to their current approach to better align with their values as they relate to the neuroethical principles discussed that day.

In our experiences, conversations on neuroethics education for non-ethicists are often framed around an unfortunate us-them dichotomy. However, from the perspective of the people on the ground doing neural engineering research, our work is constantly expanding the scope of ethical questions that must be considered. Therefore, it is critically important that we are implicitly aware and considerate of how our work affects and is affected by the world in which it exists. Developing this neuroethical ethos may be a way to move beyond “call in an ethicist” and toward redefining the scientific process to integrate, rather than outsource, ethics.

Will this program fundamentally transform the way people do research at RNEL? The answer to that question will require more data. However, it is already clear that the Neuroethics Seminar Series has become a regular feature of RNEL, something that lab members look forward to and opt to participate in, and something that is alluded to when describing lab culture externally. That alone might be a significant step toward the neuroethical ethos we hope to help cultivate as our group grows and trainees move to shape the future of the field.


References

  1. de Melo-Martín, I., Palmer, L. I., & Fins, J. J. (2007). Viewpoint: developing a research ethics consultation service to foster responsive and responsible clinical research. Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 82(9), 900–904.
  2. Krause, C. C., Krause, R. F., Reeves, M. E., & Namm, J. P. (2018). Evaluation of Didactic and Case-Based Surgical Ethics Curriculum for General Surgery Residents. Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 227(4), S90-S91. doi:10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2018.07.180. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2018.07.180
  3. Newberry, B. (2004). The dilemma of ethics in engineering education. Science and Engineering Ethics, 10, 343–351. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-004-0030-8
  4. Tubig, P., & McCusker, D. (2020). Fostering the trustworthiness of researchers: SPECS and the role of ethical reflexivity in novel neurotechnology research. Research Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016120952500
  5. Vertrees, S. M., Shuman, A. G., & Fins, J. J. (2012). Learning by Doing: Effectively Incorporating Ethics Education into Residency Training. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 28(4), 578-582. doi:10.1007/s11606-012-2277-0. https://search.datacite.org/works/10.1007/s11606-012-2277-0

Further Reading

  1. Goering, S. & Klein, K. (2020). Embedding Ethics in Neural Engineering: An Integrated Transdisciplinary Collaboration. A Guide to Field Philosophy: Case Studies and Practical Strategies (eds. Brister and Frodeman), 17-34, Routledge.
  2. Korsgaard, C. M. (2009). Agency and Identity. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199552795.001.0001
  3. The BRAIN Initiative® and Neuroethics: Enabling and Enhancing Neuroscience Advances for Society. Retrieved from https://braininitiative.nih.gov/strategic-planning/acd-working-groups/brain-initiative%C2%AE-and-neuroethics-enabling-and-enhancing
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Juhi Farooqui is a graduate student pursuing aPhD in Neural Computation at Carnegie Mellon University, under the mentorship of Dr. Lee Fisher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs (RNEL). Her research interests are in the application of computational methods to neurotechnology development for rehabilitative applications. She co-leads efforts to integrate ethics, diversity, equity, and inclusion into RNEL’s core practices, and is committed to seeing these principles centered throughout the neural engineering field. She previously trained at the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington as a post-baccalaureate fellow, and interned with the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project. 

Sarah Dawod is a student pursuing a Bioethics M.A. at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her undergraduate degree at NC State where she studied Neuroscience and minored in Health, Medicine and Human Values. She has been a part of RNEL for the past year. Her current work focuses on themes of personhood as they relateto policy and practice in the sciences.


Dev Sarma, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow developing implantable neuroprostheses for the restoration of somatosensory function after neuromuscular trauma under the mentorship of Dr. Douglas Weber at the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs (RNEL). Dr. Sarma received his Doctorate in Bioengineering with a focus on Neural Engineering from the University of Washington where he was a foundational trainee member of the NSF Center for Neurotechnology (CNT, formerly the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering) under the tutelage of center Director, Dr. Rajesh Rao, and UW Neurosurgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Ojemann.His doctoral work focused on adapting bidirectional electrocorticographic brain-computerinterfaces for cognitive and motor rehabilitation. At the CNT, he was particularly involved with interfacing between the research and neuroethics thrusts of the center and organizing integrated educational opportunities for trainees. Currently, along withhis peers at the RNEL, Dr. Sarma is on a journey to better understand how to incorporate and center principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion into academic education, research, and scientific inquiry. 


Want to cite this post?

Farooqui, J., Dawod, S., & Sarma, D. (2021). Towards a Neuroethical Ethos: A Case Study in Reframing Neuroethics Education for Engineers and Researchers. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2021/02/towards-neuroethical-ethos-case-study.html

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