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Diversity and Inclusion in Neuroethics

By Tom Buller

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In response to the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, many organizations, corporations, professional sports teams, and individuals have issued statements expressing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their condemnation of racist violence, police brutality, and the systematic and structural racism that exists in our society. Among the organizations that have published statements are three closely connected to many members of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) and to those working in neuroethics – the American Bar Association (ABA), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). 

In their statements these three organizations not only condemn the “centuries of mistreatment and violence against the Black Community,” but they also acknowledge the lack of diversity within their respective professions and state their commitment to remedy the situation. There is much work to be done. According to the most recently published data regarding race/ethnicity and APA membership, 76% of respondents identified as “White/Caucasian” and 2.6% as “Black/African-American.” 1 As the APA Task Force on Inclusion and Diversity stated

“Philosophy is, by far, the least diverse discipline among the humanities, and less diverse than most of the social and natural sciences, at least as measured by gender and race. It faces numerous and daunting problems of inclusion and equitable treatment for diverse groups across all levels of philosophical pursuit, in many different types of institution.”2

Neuroscience may be in a more respectable position than philosophy, but its situation is not too dissimilar: 2016-2017 data reveals that on average 10% of neuroscience faculty are minority and 4% of neuroscience PhD’s were awarded to those identifying as “Black or African American.”3 

Since neuroethics is such a young field it has a less extreme history of exclusion. To its advantage and credit many of its founders and leaders are women, and women represent 53% of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) Board of Directors and 60% of the NIH Neuroethics Working Group; neither the INS Board nor NIH Working Group, however, has an African-American member. We have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make the field truly diverse and inclusive, and to make sure that in twenty years neuroethics will not find itself in the same position as philosophy and neuroscience currently are. Here are some proposals of how we might achieve this goal. 

1. Start the conversation

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Neuroethics has not spent much time talking about diversity and inclusion. Perhaps we think that neuroethics has little to do with these issues (a view that is borne out by their lack of discussion in Grey Matters,4 BRAIN 20255, The Human Brain Project Report,6 Novel Neurotechnologies,7 and the Neuroethics Roadmap8). This position is mistaken and is no more credible than saying that these issues have nothing to do with philosophy, neuroscience, or bioethics, and our colleagues in these fields have recognized the critical need to start talking about diversity and inclusion.9 On July 1, 2020 SfN hosted a webcast, “Black Lives Matter and Neuroscience: Why this Moment Matters” and on July 14, 2020 the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) hosted a webinar, “Black Bioethics: Racism, Police Brutality, and What it Means for Black Health.” Neuroethics needs to start talking about these issues not only because we are part of a society in which structural racism persists, but also because diversity and inclusion are neuroethical issues.10 For example, the establishment of major national and international brain projects is exciting and their goal to develop new treatments for brain diseases and disorders laudable and significant; their success will be muted, however, if we are unable to overcome existing racial disparities in healthcare and access to treatment. We need also to consider what it means for research and innovation to be “responsible.” According to a common interpretation, this can be understood to mean the importation of social values into research. If we are serious about promoting diversity and inclusion, then we should make the importation of these values a priority. 

2. Expand the community 

A field, discipline or profession is diverse and inclusive only if there is racial and gender diversity among its members. If we wish neuroethics to meet this condition, we need to significantly increase the number of people from underrepresented groups. Here are some suggestions as to how we might help in this endeavor: 
  • Organize panel discussions on diversity and inclusion in neuroethics at the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting. 
  • Host a webinar on diversity and inclusion in neuroethics. 
  • Contact and collaborate with faculty, students, scientists, professionals etc. from underrepresented groups. 
  • Encourage Neuroethics, the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, the American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience and other relevant journals to have a special section or issue on diversity and inclusion in neuroethics. 
  • Help establish scholarships and/or travel support for members of underrepresented groups to attend neuroethics meetings 
  • Help establish interest/affinity groups for members of underrepresented groups. 
  • Work with students and faculty from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and those with significant underrepresented populations to increase interest in neuroethics, particularly institutions that are near the usual locations of INS annual meetings or major neuroethics centers and programs, for example, Howard University, San Diego State University, Chicago State University, and Spelman College. 
  • Work with the neuroethics community and private and public funding agencies to expand support for projects relating to diversity and inclusion. 

3. Expand the discussion 

A second core feature of a diverse and inclusive field is the diversity and inclusivity of its content. An African-American student taking a philosophy course in the United States is unlikely to be taught by an African-American professor or to study African-American or Africana Philosophy; rather, it is likely that both the professor and the authors of the works studied are White/Caucasian. In order to prevent this state of affairs being the case in neuroethics we need to work hard to incorporate a broad range of ideas, perspectives, and voices. This means that we need not only to broaden our community, but we also need to broaden its content. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay

One strategy that we might adopt is to work with faculty and students in areas such as critical race theory, Latinx Studies, African-American Studies, and race and gender studies to help identify existing and novel connections. Another strategy is to consider the ways in which race and gender relate to issues commonly discussed in neuroethics. A fair amount has been written about neurotechnology and issues of autonomy, authenticity, embodiment and identity, but the literature rarely includes any analysis of how these issues (and the discussion) are informed by race and gender. If we believe that race and gender play a fundamental role in the construction of identity and the way we view ourselves and others, then these factors are relevant to neuroethics and should be included in our discussions. Analogously, although neuroscience and law is a topic that has rightly generated great interest, we have tended not to examine this issue in the context of a society in which African-Americans represent 12% of the U.S. population but 33% of its prison population, and are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of White/Caucasian Americans.11 We have neither focused on equitable access to neuroimaging by criminal defendants, nor considered what role the race of the defendant plays in how the neuroimaging data is viewed. 

A third strategy is to avoid inheriting the mistakes that have been made before. For instance, a central and important topic in neuroethics is the science of ethics – specifically, the neuroscience of moral decision-making. When we talk about moral decision-making we tend to frame the topic in a binary way in terms of the competing theories of Kant and Mill, and thus we have focused on the neuroscientific basis of deontological and utilitarian moral thinking. But we should avoid thinking that these two theories exhaustively define ethics and moral decision-making, even if we can find their neuroscientific basis. Relatedly, it seems to be almost a requirement that any mention of the importance of the brain to personal identity should make reference to the work of Locke; however, it is seen as no great omission to exclude discussion of how identity is informed by race and gender. 

The Neuroethics Roadmap states:

An overarching ethical framework for the BRAIN Initiative should place the principles of social beneficence and distributive justice front and center. While the BRAIN Initiative aims to expand knowledge, its moral worth derives not from the intrinsic value of new knowledge, but from ways in which that knowledge can be used to improve the human condition.12 

This statement applies equally to neuroethics. In a society in which structural and systematic racism exists, we have an obligation to make our field diverse and inclusive. 

  1. American Philosophical Association. Demographic Statistics on APA Membership FY2016 to FY 18. See also Jennings, C. D. (2018). The Diversity and Inclusivity Survey: Final Report. Accessed July 4, 2020 
  2. American Philosophical Association. (2014). APA Task Force on Inclusion and Diversity: Report to the Board of Directors for the November 24 Meeting. Accessed July 4, 2020. 
  3. Society for Neuroscience. (2017). Report of Neuroscience Departments and Programs Survey (Academic Year 2016-2017)
  4. President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethics Issues. (2014). Grey Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society
  5. National Institutes of Health. (2014). BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision. Report to the Advisory Committee to the Director
  6. HBS-PS Consortium. (2012). The Human Brain Project: A report to the European Commission. Accessed July 4, 2020. 
  7. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. (2013). Novel Technologies: Intervening in the Brain. Accessed July 4, 2020 
  8. National Institutes of Health. (2019). Advisory Committee to the Director BRAIN Initiative Neuroethics Subgroup. The BRAIN Initiative and Neuroethics: Enabling and Enhancing Neuroscience Advances for Society.
  9. Mithani, Z., Cooper, J., & Boyd J. W. (2020). Bioethics and Black Lives: A Call for Bioethics to Speak Against Racial Injustice. Accessed July 4, 2020. 
  10. Salles, A., Herrara-Ferra,  K., & Cabrera L. Global Neuroethics and Cultural Diversity: Some Challenges to Consider. Accessed July 4, 2020. 
  11. NAACP: Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. Accessed July 4, 2020. 
  12. NIH. (2019), 26.

Tom Buller is Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University. His research focuses on neurotechnology and agency.

Want to cite this post?

Buller, T. (2020). Diversity and Inclusion in Neuroethics. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. Tom, thanks so much for this call to action for neuroethics. I'm holding the first meeting of my Mind-Brain-Law group on this topic and will benefit very much from your ideas/suggestions here. Thanks from up here in Canada, Jennifer Chandler.


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