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Neuroethics as Outreach

By Adina Roskies

Adina Roskies is The Helman Family Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Cognitive Science Program at Dartmouth College. She received a Ph.D from the University of California, San Diego in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science in 1995, a Ph.D. from MIT in philosophy in 2004, and an M.S.L. from Yale Law School in 2014. Prior to her work in philosophy she held a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroimaging at Washington University with Steven Petersen and Marcus Raichle from 1995-1997, and from 1997-1999 was Senior Editor of the neuroscience journal Neuron. Dr. Roskies’ philosophical research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience, and include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and ethics. She has coauthored a book with Stephen Morse, A Primer on Criminal Law and Neuroscience

As I write this, I am thinking more broadly about ethics and neuroscience than I usually do, pushed by political necessity. The topic of my concern is science education, construed generally. In this era in which “alternative facts” are allowed to bear that name, rather than their true name — which is “lies and misinformation” — and in which science is ignored, deemed irrelevant, or actively suppressed, I see a growing need for people in all the sciences and in ethics to speak out and to educate, wherever possible.

Neuroscientists and neuroethicists may actually have an easier time doing this than many scientists whose work has either been so politicized that they have no voice, such as people working on climate change or other environmental issues, or whose research is taken to be so esoteric that it is hard to get ordinary people to care (though much of it, like gravity waves, is really cool!).

Image courtesy of  Pixabay .

Neuroscientists, in contrast, are seen as relevant, and, at least so far, remain relatively far from the shadow of politics. Despite appearances, everybody has a brain, and most are at least somewhat concerned about it. Many people who otherwise find science “dry” or irrelevant are interested in the organ that sits between their ears.

I think neuroscientists and neuroethicists are in a better position than many scientists to try to break through the barriers that isolate scientists from large portions of our citizenry, and not just to speak truth to power, but to speak truth to those who keep those in power in power. Educating and pulling in people to the project of science and reminding them of the importance of facts, truth and the inexorable press of reality is of crucial importance. Failing to do so will have repercussions throughout society.

I was recently at an event with some junior faculty in psychology and neuroscience, and they were discussing what could happen to their careers should funding for research be cut even further than it has been, as it likely will be. 83% of AAAS scientists report that obtaining federal research funding is harder today than it was five years ago. Already some of the most senior researchers, with proven track records and spectacularly productive research programs are unable to fund their labs. If they can’t make it fly, what will happen to those starting out? Most likely, many will be driven out of academia. The lucky may end up at tech firms while the less fortunate may have to find another path entirely. While one may discount the importance of any individual researcher and chalk the attrition up to a salutary social Darwinism, the long-term effects on society could be far reaching. 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A recent PEW survey reports that scientists are increasingly pessimistic, with a significant decline in the percentage of scientists who think this is a good time to enter science. One of my colleagues, not prone to be an Eeyore, mused, “We could lose an entire generation of scientists.” 

That puts a new face on the problem: losing a generation of scientists really means losing much more than a generation. It means losing a generation of scientific mentors and setting back science several generations. It means losing American primacy in higher education and in innovation. It means losing crucial time in developing cures for diseases and losing all the lives that could have been saved or improved. It means losing effective teachers of science for our children, who may then themselves be unable to distinguish between facts and lies, or worse, who may not care about the difference. They will then be that much closer to being bamboozled by those for whom personal power trumps everything, especially ethics. And that, of course, is what those guys want. So don’t sit idly by: educate your countrymen about science and champion it whenever and wherever you can!

Want to cite this post?

Roskies, A. (2017). Neuroethics as Outreach. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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