Bringing Together Neuroethicists, Writers, and Scientists for Conversations on Neuroethics Engagement

By Alissa L. Meister and Nina Hsu

Image via nih.gov

At the National Institutes of Health, the neuroethics program within the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative works with the BRAIN community to identify and navigate ethical challenges and implications of neuroscience research programs and discoveries, and to facilitate neuroscience progress. The pace of neuroscience and the development of new technologies is accelerating quickly. These advances in our understanding of the brain and ability to monitor and modulate brain function can raise unresolved ethical questions, such as those related to personal identity, consciousness, and autonomy. For example, deep brain stimulation treatment may alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but how do patients balance this benefit with potential changes in how they are behaving or feeling? How can scientists incorporate patients’ values and perspectives into their research? And how can we ensure that stakeholders are aware and informed of neuroethical considerations in research? As neuroscience and neurotechnologies advance, neuroethics engagement strives to facilitate communication between neuroethicists, neuroscientists, and the public and scientific communities to share knowledge and raise awareness about neuroethical considerations in research.

To learn more about how these conversations happen and improve neuroethics engagement efforts, a neuroethics-focused session was held at the (virtual) 7th Annual BRAIN Initiative Investigators Meeting on June 14th, 2021. This post provides an overview of the session and a recap of some of the points raised by the group.

The goal of this session was to hold a meaningful discussion on promoting neuroethics engagement in neuroscience from interdisciplinary perspectives and to discuss what has worked well in facilitating cross-disciplinary discussions and forging relationships that include neuroethics. Session attendees spanned the demographics of the Investigators Meeting, from early trainees to professors as well as other members of the public and scientific communities. 

Image via brainmeeting2021.com
The session began with an introduction on neuroethics engagement by Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, the K. Ranga Rama Krishnan Associate Professor at Duke University. Dr. Dzirasa’s talk framed neuroethics engagement as a way we can bring individuals and communities along in the process of creating better technologies, ensuring the population is ready to access and utilize these technologies, and described how the perspectives reflect the diversity of thoughts and opinions present across the country. He emphasized that neuroethics is a unique field as it addresses the very question of what it means to be human, and the many contexts that impact this human identity. Using the current and pressing issue of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, Dr. Dzirasa also underscored the importance of listening to individual- and community-level perspectives, goals, and concerns. Finally, Dr. Dzirasa stressed the need to bring new generations into the conversation, and highlighted the recent BRAIN Initiative Challenge: Considering Ethics During Brain Technology Development as a successful method of engaging with the next generation of researchers.

Following Dr. Dzirasa’s remarks, meeting attendees broke out into small-group discussions, designed to provide an interactive format for open, honest conversations. Groups were no larger than eight and each included at least one NIH staff member serving as a facilitator and at least one discussion moderator with expertise in neuroethics, science communications, or neuroscience research.

Some of the recurring themes from the small-group discussions included:

  • Neuroethics engagement may take at least two different forms. Engaging with neuroscientists often has the goal of encouraging collaborations with neuroethicists in neuroscience research. Engaging with the general public has typically focused on raising awareness about neuroethics and the intersection of science and society. Regardless of the form of neuroethics engagement, differing values across these diverse perspectives should be taken into account.
  • Successful engagement aims to involve everyone in the conversation, including those historically underrepresented in neuroscience and neuroethics, by forming meaningful connections and ensuring open, bidirectional communication.
  • The power balance between those sharing information and those seeking it should be recognized and accounted for in order to create a more equal paradigm where all perspectives are valued.
  • Incentives for the integration of neuroethics and science communication into neuroscience research should be clearly defined, including an emphasis on how that integration improves the science.
  • Common frameworks for neuroethics engagement should be developed that encourage collaboration across disciplines from the very beginning of a project.

Image via nih.gov

After a report-out from the small group discussions, a larger group discussion elaborated and expanded on these central themes. The discussion started with a conversation about measuring success in neuroethics engagement, including defining goals and methodologies of a project early on and for whom they matter. Participants also emphasized the need for neuroethics engagement to be a participatory collective with deep collaboration; this deep engagement is necessary in order to build trust. The group then discussed possible ways to incentivize neuroethics engagement and collaboration beyond publications, including through funding mechanisms and the development of engagement plans. Finally, participants shared their experiences with the differing priorities, goals, and hidden commitments across disciplines, and how these can lead to collaboration challenges and colliding cultures.

As a result of this excellent discussion, we have identified several possible next steps, including:

  • Defining value proposition and developing incentives for collaboration between neuroscientists, neuroethicists, and science communication experts.
    • One potential model for incentivizing neuroethics integration and collaboration could be the BRAIN Initiative’s recent addition of a required Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) in most funding opportunity announcements.
  • Highlighting examples where collaboration and public engagement have had a broad impact and resulted in a better research outcome.
  • Promoting existing engagement efforts in order to define metrics of success in neuroethics engagement.
  • Developing an accessible common framework and language for those seeking to engage with the broader public on topics related to neuroethics.
  • Advertising existing resources that provide methodologies for public engagement.
  • Holding more events that encourage open, bidirectional dialogue across perspectives and disciplines. 

Of note, the Global Neuroethics Working Group (GNWG), an endeavor of the International Brain Initiative (IBI), has been working since 2017 to identify ethical concerns raised by neuroscience and promote opportunities for discussion and analysis of these issues in cross-cultural contexts. The GNWG organizes an annual Global Neuroethics Summit (GNS) to advance ethical global neuroscience research through collaboration and knowledge sharing, and to pursue strategies to address the societal and ethical implications of emerging neuroscience and neurotechnologies. The 2019 GNS explored public engagement strategies around five “hot topics” including data sharing and neuroprivacy, modeling human attributes, neuroscience-based policy, human brain banking, and nonhuman primate research. Follow the GNWG website for more information on this work.

We hope that this is one step in a continued dialogue that will bring us all closer to the end goal of facilitating neuroscience progress through the identification and navigation of potential ethical challenges and implications of neuroscience research programs and discoveries. 

For those who may have missed it, a recording of the session is available on the BRAIN Initiative YouTube channel and 2021 Investigators Meeting virtual conference space.


Acknowledgements: The authors thank the participants and organizers of the Neuroethics-focused session at the BRAIN Investigators’ Meeting. We would also like to acknowledge the discussion moderators: Dr. Timothy Brown, Dr. Ricardo Chavarriaga, Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, Dr. Stephanie Naufel, Dr. Russell Poldrack, Dr. Karen Rommelfanger, Dr. Caitlin Shure, Ms. Elaine Snell, Ms. Jamie Talan, and Dr. Anna Wexler

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Alissa L. Meister, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) at NIH. She completed a four-month developmental PMF rotation in the Neuroscience Content and Strategy Branch of the Office of Neuroscience Communications and Engagement (ONCE) at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) during Spring 2021 where she worked on several projects related to neuroethics. She is currently a Health Science Policy Analyst in the NIH Office of Science Policy.

Nina Hsu, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and Health Science Policy Analyst in the Neuroscience Content and Strategy Branch of ONCE within NINDS at NIH. She serves as Science Committee Specialist for the BRAIN Neuroethics Working Group and was previously Science Committee Specialist for the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director BRAIN Initiative Working Group 2.0.



Want to cite this post?

Meister, A. L. & Hsu, N. (2021). Bringing Together Neuroethicists, Writers, and Scientists for Conversations on Neuroethics Engagement. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2021/08/bringing-together-neuroethicists.html

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