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How Does Neuroethics Intersect with Neuroscience Public Engagement?

By Jayatri Das and Darrell Porcello

Neuroscience is rapidly advancing, presenting new frontiers for researchers, patients, and public audiences alike. A 2018 conference to conceptualize a new public initiative around brain science concluded that neuroscientists and educators should meet public audiences where they are, through an equitable exchange of values and ideas for the future (Das et al., 2018). Concurrent with this refreshed direction for neuroscience public engagement, international brain research projects have increasingly recognized the need for public input on potential individual and societal implications of neuroscience.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Given the emerging common interest in neuroscience and society across disciplines, the (U.S.) National Informal STEM Education (NISE) Network, in partnership with The Kavli Foundation and the Neuroethics Workgroup of the International Brain Initiative, conducted a series of interviews with neuroscientists, neuroethicists, patient advocates, and educators to characterize the global landscape of neuroscience public engagement efforts with connections to fundamental questions in neuroethics (Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates et al., 2018). For this search, we narrowed our parameters to neuroscience public engagement projects with the potential for two-way interaction between experts and public audiences. After almost 50 interviews, five categories of engagement styles emerged that are broadly representative of the current landscape of neuroscience public engagement connected with neuroethics. Characteristic activities of each category shared similar goals as described below.

Characteristic activities
Structured assessment of public
opinions & attitudes
Deliberative dialogue

Interviews and surveys

Online comment analysis
To obtain a generalizable understanding of community- or population-level
attitudes that can help define cultural context and societal values about a
particular issue 
Interactive exhibits, public
programs & informal STEM learning
Exhibitions, often employing
multisensory interactivity, new technologies, social engagement, physicality,
and flow

Public programs such as summer
camps, after-school programs, science festivals, or other facilitated
learning programs outside of school
To create fun, social learning
experiences that spark interest and motivation in participants, while
contributing to a personal identity of knowing about and using STEM
Inspirational media through
partnerships with artists
Artistic interpretations of
science, shared in a public forum

Narrative performance, e.g.
theatre, film, or radio, bringing together art
To channel imagination into
expression, visualize the unseen in science, or verbalize unspoken emotions,
through creative work
Expert discussions for public
The inherent one-to-many style of
interaction limits the potential for meaningful dialogue

Possibility of perpetuating the
deficit model of science communication
To bring together experts,
representing different perspectives of multiple disciplines, to discuss a
particular topic in front of a public audience
Partnerships for clinical
Cultural divides between
biomedical research and patient groups can impede collaboration

Traditional cultural stigmas,
especially with respect to mental illness, can be hard to overcome
To bring researchers, medical
professionals, patients, and advocates together to shape research priorities,
improve participation and health outcomes, and change public attitudes

Through our interviews, we observed several cross-cutting challenges and opportunities for this nexus of public engagement efforts. We found that the foremost of the challenges is regarding pockets of innovation in neuroscience public engagement connected with neuroethics, where efforts are not consistent across geographic regions or institution types. International brain research projects, brain research centers, and neuroscientists have different goals around public engagement and different levels of access to or partnerships with neuroethicists. This variation in priorities also has led to uneven interest in the fundamental questions in neuroethics with topics around neurotechnologies, data privacy, and mental illness rising to the top. As with other STEM public engagement efforts, our interviews also revealed changes needed to academic culture for the continued growth of neuroscience public engagement, including more institutional recognition for faculty and students.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Leading the opportunities, we observed a strong desire for more collaboration among neuroscientists, neuroethicists, and experts in other fields such as communications, survey methodology, public engagement, the arts, and evaluation and learning research. This enthusiasm for an interdisciplinary approach to public engagement can be the spark for a new, international network of practice that can effectively convene researchers and diverse audiences, with both public and professional impacts. A broad network could also leverage community and regional values to implement more culturally responsive public engagement.

Finally, almost all of the neuroscience public engagement programs we encountered could have benefited from open resources that directly support and build facilitation skills for one-on-one interactions between neuroscientists and public audiences. As we learned from some outstanding projects, dialogue about neuroethics results in meaningful conversations that can have tremendous impact on all participants. We discovered a wide range of practices and strategies used to trigger these rewarding interactions—from large-scale events with many partners to an intimate, compelling work of art. How can we scale up, share, and continually improve supporting resources to increase the capacity of scientists, ethicists, and educators to guide public engagement with neuroethics?

The full report, A Global Landscape of Neuroscience Public Engagement Efforts and the Potential Nexus of Neuroethics, is now available at


Jayatri Das is Director of Science Content and Chief Bioscientist at The Franklin Institute and an invited Fellow of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania. She has led development of the Institute’s two newest permanent exhibitions—Your Brain, a national award-winning exhibit about the neuroscience and psychology of the human brain, and SportsZone—and directs various programming initiatives to advance informal science education about areas of emerging science and their societal impact. She also serves as an advisor to the National Informal STEM Education (NISE) Network. In 2016, she was honored with the American Alliance of Museums’ Nancy Hanks Award for Professional Excellence.She received her Ph.D. in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

Darrell Porcello manages, designs, and finds funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education projects. Currently, he is Co-Investigator of a NASA Science Mission Directorate-funded Earth and space science public engagement project of the National Informal STEM Education (NISE) Network and coordinates efforts at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco and other U.S. museum partners. He is part of the team responsible for the Sun, Earth, Universe exhibition and the Explore Science: Earth & Space toolkit, reaching hundreds of museum partner and millions of visitors throughout the U.S. In his previous role of Chief Technology Officer at University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, he grew a small multimedia service group into a successful production house for independent educational technology products with significant impact and millions of active users. He received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Stanford University.


  1. Das, J., Kollmann, E.K., Porcello, D., Ostman, R. & Bell, L. (2018). Public engagement with neuroscience and society: Conference report and vision for a national informal neuroscience education initiative. Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.
  2. Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates, Rommelfanger K.S., Jeong,S.J., Ema,A., Fukushi,T., Kasai,K., Ramos,K.M., Salles,A., Singh,I. (2018). Neuroethics questions to guide ethical research in the international brain initiatives. Neuron, 100:19-36.

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Das, J., and Porcello, D. (2019). How Does Neuroethics Intersect with Neuroscience Public Engagement? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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