At the HBP Open Day 2017 Florence, Italy

What ethical and societal questions scientists, engineers and developers in the Human Brain Project (HBP) encounter in their work? How do they deal with them? To shed some light on these questions we start Q&A series with Ethics Rapporteurs. First to answer our questions is Meredith Peyser (Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany) from the Sub-Project 7 High Performance Analytics and Computing. 

Q1: Please briefly introduce research and main activities of your Sub-Project!

I have the pleasure to be a member of the Sub-Project 7 (SP7) in the Human Brain Project (HBP) that builds and operates the High Performance Analytics and Computing (HPAC) Platform. This platform enables scientists to run large-scale, data-intensive, interactive brain simulations up to the size of a full human brain, to manage the large amounts of data used and produced in the HBP, and to manage complex workflows, comprised of concurrent simulation, data analysis and visualisation workloads.

The HPAC Platform provides HBP-specific interfaces to the underlying federated Fenix infrastructure, built by the same five supercomputing and data centres in the Interactive Computing e-Infrastructure (ICEI) project that build and operate the HPAC Platform.

Q2: How and why did you became an Ethics Rapporteur for the HPAC?

I first became an SP7 manager in 2016, one of four currently. Then after getting a broad overview of the research and development conducted by the scientists in our Sub-Project, I obtained the position as one of two SP7 Ethics Rapporteurs as I found it to be an interesting and important aspect of our research.

Q3: What are the most exciting and most challenging aspects of being an Ethics Rapporteur?

The most exciting aspects are realizing and identifying new potential ethical risks that the Sub-Project may face, since many research projects are cutting-edge in their fields, bringing with this the need for cutting-edge thinking for new ethical concerns. The most challenging aspect is being aware of the current ethical concerns that exist in the project and trying to reduce the risks they pose. Once a risk is defined, there is collective effort in searching for a solution to reduce the possibility of said risk.

Q4: What are the main societal benefits from the work of the HPAC?

The work of HBP’s SP7 and ICEI will provide many societal benefits. Providing EU and non-EU neuroscientists with access to leading supercomputing sites facilitates the exploitation of their cutting-edge software and data needed to advance brain research, which will in turn advance future medical treatments of brain diseases. While the infrastructure was built and operated for the scientific purpose of human brain research, it has opened the door to be able to benefit other scientific fields as well.

Q5: What are the main ethical and societal questions you encounter in the work of the HPAC and how are they addressed?

Our main ethical questions that we face are how to store and process personal data on the federated Fenix infrastructure in compliance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and how to best monitor any dual use concerns (e.g., software developed on supercomputers). 

Currently, the federated supercomputing sites in the Fenix RI each have their own strict usage agreements and procedures in place to minimize any risk involved with handling personal data, and each site has their own Data Protection Officer (DPO) to oversee the compliance with the GDPR. 

Q6: What are good practices for involving scientists and developers with ethical and societal issues?

It is important for ethics be a part of the original proposal of a research project, then it becomes an integral part of the thought process from the beginning. Since ethics is a mandatory part of the HBP research reporting, it is regularly a topic of discussion at various levels, from being an agenda item at Sub-Project meetings and discussions in Ethics Rapporteurs meetings to minute details in the HBP reporting. 

Also, webinars are good tools to have an open forum to ask questions. These forums have been effective when they are specifically target-based, such as “Dual Use in Software”, or “Data Management for importing/exporting data”, in order to ensure that those who attend are a focused group and stay engaged in the discussion. Inevitably new questions and scenarios arise from such discussions, as well as possible solutions.

Meredith Peyser is a biologist and is experienced in lab research and project management. She holds a Bachelors in Biology from Florida International University. She is currently a project manager at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre in the High Performance Computing in Neuroscience Division. 

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