‘Old’ and ‘new’ HBP Ethics Advisory Board members meeting with the Ethics Support team in London, September 2019

Shamim Patel

The Human Brain Project’s (HBP) Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) has since January 2020 six new EAB members: Kristin Bergtora Sandvik; Michaela Th. Mayrhofer, Christine Mitchell​, Sven Nyholm​,  ​Vicenç Torra​ and ​Blaise Yvert. They cover a wide geographical spread (Austria, France, Ireland, Norway, The Netherlands and the USA) and have a diverse range of competencies and expertise that are highly suitable for the HBP as it moves to EBRAINS. These include AI, bio/medical ethics; data governance; ethics of infrastructure; IT; legal expertise in technology, health systems and global governance; neuroscience; robotics; and simulation modelling.

The new members are receiving mentorship from the six current members, who have been on board since the HBP established its independent ethical committees back in March 2014. This process involves the old members buddying up – or acting as a Godfather to the new members (in the non-gender Cinderella benevolent sense, rather than the sinister perception associated with Marlon Brandon). Knowledge and experiences are shared and new members are guided through the complexities of a huge project such as HBP.

This process started in Athens, during the HBP 7th Annual Summit where the old and new EAB members had their first meeting together. The EAB also had meetings with the Science and Infrastructure Advisory Board; the Science and Infrastructure Board; the Ethics Rapporteurs; and a relaxed, informal meet-up with the two Project Officers from the European Commission (EC). As a result, a number of recommendations were already forthcoming. These included advice and suggestions on the ESFRI (the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures) application, the Rapporteur Programme in the next HBP funding period (SGA3 – Specific Grant Agreement 3, April 2020- March 2023), technical data issues; and equity and equality to access of data revolving around EBRAINS.

Ethics Dialogues in practice 

The current stage of the mentorship process (March and April 2020) involves one old member and one new member participating in each of the “trilateral” meetings.  The meetings are trilateral in that each meeting brings together representatives from each HBP Sub-Project (SP); two members from the EAB matched up to each meeting in accordance with their expertise and background; plus several members of the HBP Ethics Support team including the HBP Ethics Director. These meetings traditionally provide the scope to discuss the ethical issues in each of the SPs, with advice being offered from the EAB members. They are an example of a dialogical approach to ethics developed by the HBP Ethics Support team.

An important aim of the meetings this year is to  provide support so that each SP is well prepared for the review of the current funding period (SGA2 – Specific Grant Agreement 2, April 2018 – March 2020) where ethics form part of the work presented to the EC reviewers. This year there has been focus on data governance and dual use issues – two areas where the HBP Ethics and Society Sub-Project has published opinions and the HBP has established working groups to implement them. The final EAB mentorship and handover stage will be during the SGA2 review where again it is planned for one old member and one new member to physically be present in each of the individual SP review meetings.

Towards a new EAB 

“We have a fantastic new EAB” the Chair wrote to me when the final new proposed candidate accepted the invitation to join. It also goes without saying that we have had a fantastic EAB up to now  too – who are helping pave the way for the new members to not only walk in their footsteps but also providing them with the groundwork to make their own imprints into HBP as it moves towards EBRAINS. These are certainly “exciting times” as one new member put it. At the same time it will feel  strange to no longer have the wise, ethically responsible and conscientious “old” members around (who I hasten to add are not really that old). 

“Thank you very much” Berit Bringedal, Markus Christen, Josep Domingo-Ferrer, Hannah Maslen, Miguel Medina and Melita Šalković-Petrišić, for your dedication and valuable contributions to the HBP, and a reiterated “very warm welcome” to Blaise, Christine, Kristin, Michaela, Sven and Vicenç.

Let the good work of the EAB roll on!

Click here to the EAB Webpage.

Shamim Patel is task leader for the EAB and Other Ethics Services. She provides support to the EAB and helps organise and follow through on their meetings.

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