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In Conversation with Panelists from the INS Social Justice and Neuroethics Listening Session

By Kimberley Glover

Image courtesy of Thrive Global
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, systemic racism and racial injustice remain at the forefront of the public consciousness. Amid a global reckoning on systemic injustice, what tangible actions can the neuroethics field take to address its internal inequities and advance social progress? 

In October, the International Neuroethics Society (INS) hosted a Social Justice and Neuroethics Listening Session. This online session provided space for panelists and attendees to share their thoughts, perspectives, and experiences on issues related to social justice. I spoke with two of the panelists, Elba Serrano and Karen Herrera-Ferrá, about their thoughts on social justice, this current moment of reckoning, and the next steps forward for the neuroethics community. 

Elba Serrano, PhD is Regents Professor of Biology at New Mexico State University, member of the NIH BRAIN MultiCouncil Working Group, the BRAIN Neuroethics Working Group, and the NIH ACD Next Generation Research Initiative Working Group.

Elba Serrano

What were your thoughts on the listening session?

Elba Serrano: I think that conversation was a good beginning. I would like the neuroethics community to define better focus areas for more targeted listening sessions moving forward. When conducting future sessions, I think it’ll be important to structure them in a way that encourages more audience contribution. These sessions can be challenging to organize because the topics are so broad, and we’ve never collectively talked about them before.

You stated that the neuroethics community should be actively engaging young people and minorities. Why should younger, more diverse voices be amplified in conversations around social justice?

Much of the conversation should be driven by younger members of the society. These conversations really should address the issues, questions, and concerns of our younger members. This is not to exclude our more senior members, but it’s simply that their future is most at risk. Since these individuals are most affected, I would like to see their voices prominent in future conversations. We have much to learn from their perspectives and experiences.

You talked about the importance of making a distinction between diversity and inclusion. Can you discuss this topic further?

I am deeply worried about jobs and the diversity of the workforce. When positions are predicted to be fewer and highly competitive, conversations of diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical. There are conversations about how positions are configured for hire, and then there are conversations about how positions are advertised to reach different constituencies. Ultimately, these conversations must lead to better policies and practices.

Regarding neuroethics, there are two kinds of conversations we need to have. One conversation has to do with the discipline itself. What questions are being asked? Who are the people asking the questions? Who decides which projects get funded and what gets accepted into journals? The other conversation involves how we interact with the community itself. Those are the issues of how we deal with constituencies of different backgrounds. Within that space, we must recognize that this is an international society. Although founded in and currently dominated by the United States, the issues that we identify in the United States are not necessarily the issues that are pertinent in other countries. There are movements in our nation that have spread elsewhere, but the most pressing social issues may not necessarily be the same in another nation. There is a global trend to address the need for diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities. We must be diverse, which means demographic representation of people on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, discipline, etc., and inclusive, which means practices that make people feel included by ensuring they are respected, empowered, and have a seat at the table in decision-making. I don’t think people fully understand the difference between diversity and inclusion. I often hear people using these terms interchangeably, but the concepts are distinct. You can be diverse, but not be inclusive. It is important to be both. 

You touched on the potential of hybrid models for future meetings and conferences. Why would hybrid models be beneficial?

I’m excited about the potential of hybrid models. Post-pandemic, the world is going to change in ways that we cannot foresee. When the existing structure is challenged, that which is not resilient and inclusive will fall. This is a time for people to let go of habitual practices and change to ways that are better suited to the task.  A hybrid model could allow our meetings to become more affordable and inclusive. With hybrid meetings, we can be as creative as we want to be. If we move to a hybrid model, however, I don’t know what the costs will be. All in all, I think it would be very exciting to implement a hybrid model.

Karen Herrera-Ferrá, MD, PhD is the Founder and President of the Asociación Mexicana de Neuroética. Her research focuses on recurrent violent behavior and the globalization of neuroethics in Latin America.

Karen Herrera-Ferrá

You stated that the word “inclusive” has many different interpretations. Can you discuss this topic further?

Karen Herrera-Ferrá: I believe that we take for granted that everybody has the same understanding of ‘inclusiveness’ and maybe, we are mistaken. The concept of ‘inclusiveness’ can have different meanings for different people. The inclusion of underrepresented communities and countries entails understanding the needs and beliefs of ‘others’, which can be acquired through an empathic bilateral dialogue as equals.

Thus, in order to reach this ‘starting point,’ we first need to lay some sensitive open questions on the table: Are we dialoging the same? Are we perceiving the same? Can we understand each other’s perceptions? Is there reciprocal willingness to do this? What are the ideal objectives of each part? What are the realistic ones? What are the common goals? Which ones are we trying to achieve…together? What do we want to express and what does the other side want to know? How much do I want to be morally involved? Would that slow me down? How much am I willing to ‘pay’ or ‘sacrifice’? Do we really understand why the ‘other’ is not here with us? What do we think we have already done to narrow this gap? What do we think the ‘other’ has done to narrow this gap? What do we think we should do to narrow this gap? What do we think the ‘other’ should do to narrow this gap?

If we do not ask these hard questions, the task of inclusion becomes very confusing and frustrating, like being at a party where the hosts and invitees speak completely different languages and expect very different things from each other, thus creating a sense of unwelcomeness and non-belonging. I don’t think this is an attractive atmosphere for anyone.

You stated that cognitive processes are shaped considerably by systemic injustice. How can neuroethics help us understand the impact of inequality on the brain?

Minority groups struggle to survive and thrive, in contrast to non-minority groups, whose foci is to outstand. The inequity of opportunities is historical, and goes beyond economic restrictions, poverty, or any other obvious constraint. It is also about shaped cognitive processes, such as perceptions on justice, inclusiveness, discrimination, self-discrimination, self-perception, self-capability, self-deserving, self-worthy, resilience, and self-identity. To what exactly are we self-predisposed by these kinds of thoughts?

I believe neuroethics is in a privileged position to understand not only the effect of systemic injustices on the brain, but also the dimensional impact on human life. With this knowledge, neuroethics could step in to at least call for more aggressive educational and policy-making efforts to foster social justice.

After hearing the perspectives, questions, and experiences of the co-panelists and session attendees, what do you think should be the next step going forward for the neuroethics community?

I think that this session has helped us to realize that being mindful of the justice gap is not enough. Neuroethics is a young field, so we must try to avoid the injustices that are so clearly embedded in other fields. For me, the next step would be to acknowledge that this is a work-in-progress and a team effort; we need to speak, listen, and ask each other the hard questions. Diverse perceptions and narratives need to be included in every domain, not only for the benefit of the neuroethics field, but also for humankind.

Amid the ongoing devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and high-profile incidents of anti-Black violence, systemic injustice has become impossible to ignore. Given the breadth of the field, neuroethics is uniquely positioned to respond to these urgent societal challenges.

As the nation reckons with its racist past and present, we must continue to engage in constructive dialogue about social justice. To that end, symbolic gestures are not enough—we are at a tipping point in society and the moment demands more. To guide conscious and informed action, listening sessions are an important start. To effect meaningful and lasting social change, we must work to translate these conversations into transformative action. 


Kimberley Glover is a Meeting Intern at the International Neuroethics Society and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in bioethics at Wake Forest University. She recently graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science. 

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Glover, K. (2021). In Conversation with Panelists from the INS Social Justice and Neuroethics Listening Session. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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