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Examining Models for Integrating Ethics and Neuroscience Research

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) this morning started the second day of its 16th public meeting by calling on four speakers to share their thoughts on strategies for integrating ethics into neuroscience. The speakers included Pamela Sankar, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania; Barbara Herr Harthorn, Ph.D., Director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society; Mildred Cho, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics; and Erik Fisher, Ph.D., Associate Director for Integration at Arizona State University’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society.

Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., President of the University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the Bioethics Commission emphasized that ethical issues are not unique to neuroscience, however they could see increased public attention given that neuroscience is a young science and concerns an organ that helps define who people are. That’s why the Bioethics Commission is exploring ways to integrate ethics into neuroscience early, said Amy Gutmann.

Sankar told the panel of the history of the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Research Program (ELSI), founded as part of the Human Genome Project. While the program struggled to bridge the gap between ELSI research and policy, it “gave us some very good models that we could look to going forward.” One of those models includes the establishment of consortia of researchers who get together and discuss ethical issues. “I think they resulted in the creation of a new community of people” that fostered positive discussion, she said.

Meanwhile, Harthorn agreed that the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative will raise important ethical questions. Determining the nature and extent of the ethical and societal concerns that the initiative must address will require funding for social, ethical and behavioral research and in infrastructure for coordinating that work, Harthorn said.

Cho told the Bioethics Commission about research ethics consultation services (RECS), which are programs to provide ethics guidance to scientists on their research. Survey and interview data that Cho and other scholars have collected suggest that a majority of scientists find these consulting services to be personally or professionally useful. Scientists, when planning a research project, can go to these services with a specific ethical concern in mind or they can ask the consultants to assess whether any ethical concerns exist to begin with. “I think that research ethics consultation is becoming a more established institutional mechanism for integrating ethical and social implications into biomedical research,” she said.

Fisher, meanwhile, discussed how embedding a social scientist or humanist into a research lab for a few months can help scientists learn how ethics plays into their own work.

Despite the existence of several models of ethics integration, several speakers noted that scientists are not always aware of scientific ethics resources that are available to them; they do not understand what ethics means in science, or may not be interested. Some of the speakers warned that scientists cannot be compelled to be curious about or strongly mindful of ethics. Sometimes scientists may feel reluctant to embrace change in their workplace climate, Fisher said. Some speakers noted the need to explain why ethics important to science and how to get scientists interested in ethics.

Sankar argued for reforming science education from its earliest stages so that up-and-coming scientists learn to see how ethics goes hand-in-hand with scientific research. “The day has passed where we can have [only] commissions or consortia and feel like we’re fundamentally dealing with it,” she said. Sankar also said some scientists may view learning about and practicing good ethics more about complying with rules than about advancing responsible research. It might be wise, she said, to frame ethics integration to scientists as how scientists can make their science better, not, “What do we do to stay out of trouble?”

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2 Comments to Examining Models for Integrating Ethics and Neuroscience Research

  1. Melba Logan's Gravatar Melba Logan
    February 11, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    fMRI’s are moving us toward greater understanding of awareness states while posterior circulation coiling is achieving miraculous recovery rates. Amidst this science (except for cerebral circulation studies) we remain locked in antiquated methods for determining and perhaps defining “brain death” death (corneal reflex, pupillary response, etc). Given the methods used to procure donated organs, hopefully this question will be addressed early on by the commission thereby lessening the painful debate on the presence of “brain death”.

  2. Leonard Ortmann's Gravatar Leonard Ortmann
    February 13, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Were the Commission to recommend better ways to integrate not just neuroscience but science generally with ethics, it would perform a great service. Two competing models, the fact/value dichotomy and viewing science as a social construction, represent antipodal viewpoints hardly conducive to integration.

    ELSI has made a good start in thinking about integration but falls short, because it relegate ethics largely to the reactive mode of preventing the negative implications of science. In this mode, ethics largely becomes about risk management and compliance rules to avoid potential harms. While undoubtedly imporant, relegating ethics to setting parameters inadvertently fetters ethics.

    Consortia and embedding humanists in labs are worthwhile, but integrating ethics further upstream, even into science education as Pamela Sankar suggests, will be necessary.

    What more is needed? As suggested, forcing together people from the science and humanities/social science camps won’t work, but the field of bioethics has always attracted precisely those who do want to collaborate. This self-selected group ultimately must set itself the task of transforming the culture of both science and humanities. To do so will require a clear understanding of the cultural forces that led to their divergence as a preliminary step to envisioning their cultural integration as the norm.

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