What are the most pertinent neuroethical challenges facing the Human Brain Project (HBP)? And if we had to pick one topic for a public engagement exercise, which would it be? These two questions are the starting point for a co-design process to develop an upcoming HBP public engagement: Gathering European citizens, neuroscientists and other experts and stakeholders in dialogue about how to understand and address this challenge.
“Mixing of Minds: bringing together neuroscience and society” will take place in the Autumn of 2021, but the preparations are already underway, starting with identifying challenges to address in this process. The Mixing of Minds dialogues between researchers, stakeholders and publics next year will build on an internal process. In November 2020 and March 2021, we will organise two workshops: The purpose of the first is to discuss a range of neuroethical challenges, ending up with an agreement on what the most pertinent challenge is for the HBP. In the second workshop we will add various stakeholders relevant to the ethical challenge identified to the group to discuss the challenge and develop content for the Mixing of Minds dialogues. After the dialogues, the results will be reported back to the HBP, and presented for both EBRAINS and the International Brain Initiative (IBI)
On November 25, we sat down for a virtual workshop with the Mixing of Minds Working Group, to discuss five pre-identified neuroethical challenges. All parts, or Work Packages, of the HBP were represented. In addition, we had invited four members of the project’s Responsible Innovation and Use Hub to provide an overview of a specific neuroethical challenge, and perhaps more importantly: its implications. In order to ensure relevant perspectives were included, the group included four members with different expertise: Achim Rosemann (Industry relations), Arleen Salles (understandings of consciousness and understandings of disease), William Knight (data governance) and Julia Trattnig (bias).
The aim of the day was deceivingly simple: decide which neuroethical challenge is the most pertinent for the HBP and discuss how the results of this process can be used to inform the development of the EBRAINS infrastructure. During the discussion, the working group touched on data governance, industry relations, bias, and how we understand consciousness and disease.
The discussion on data governance included the legal and ethical challenges to operating an international research infrastructure with data stemming from various locations, making it challenging to ensure and document compliance with GDPR and other sector-specific regulations. The participants agreed that increased regulation is crucial and that data governance requirements should be legally enforced to have an effect. Others argued that it is important that regulation does not restrict researchers’ in their work, which could potentially leave HBP at a disadvantageous position in relation to other brain initiatives.
The discussion on Industry relations focused on the challenges in relation to commercialization and exploitation of research results were discussed. It was discussed how the invariable dependency between research (having the knowledge) and industry (having the funds) was productive in advancing brain research, but at the same time a source of great concerns about industry potentially commercialising or even monopolising research findings from publicly funded research. While some argued for a case-by-case approach for ethically sound industry collaboration, others argued for a broad global framework.
The discussion on bias covered challenges in addressing bias in data and research design as well as in relations to career developments. The participants agreed that this was important and interrelated with several of the workshop topics discussed and expressed concerns in relation to how to raise awareness about existing HBP guidelines.
The discussion on ways of understanding consciousness touched on the issues that arise with new and/or better understandings of human consciousness. The participants discussed understandings of human consciousness, including issues in relation to coma patients, as well as the more broad societal consequences of animals and computers increasingly being engineered to mimic human consciousness, which could potentially change public attitudes to lab animals, industrial-scale animal farming, cognisant computer systems and lab-grown brain cells.
Finally, the discussion on different understandings of disease focused on future implications of better prediction and new understandings of bran-related illnesses. It was among other things discussed how new treatments might entail new side-effects, that may not necessarily be considered to outweigh the burdens of the disease.
Clearly, all five topics are highly relevant to the HBP and EBRAINS, the future research infrastructure that the HBP is building. But the question remains: which one should we focus on?
Having carefully discussed each topic, the working group decided that the most pertinent issue across all HBP work packages is that of industry relations. Much of the promise of the HBP and EBRAINS is that it will lead to commercial outputs and new applications. However, the commercial exploitation of advances in neuroscience, brain-inspired computing, neurorobotics, medical informatics and other research areas in the HBP is not without risks. It raises questions related to dual use and misuse and can have unintended disruptive effects on human societies and the economy. Therefore, is necessary to consider how, under which conditions and for which purposes industry stakeholders should be allowed to access the research infrastructures, services, databases, and tools that the HBP and EBRAINS develop and promote for public use.
Focusing on the neuroethical challenges related to developing responsible approaches to industry relations does not mean that the four other topics were dismissed by the members of the working group. Rather, they saw the other neuroethical challenges as woven into the fabric of developing a framework and strategy for working responsibly with industry. Further underlining the interconnectedness of all of the five neuroethical challenges discussed, the term “a culture of ethics” was used across all topics by some participants to describe a change of mindset in relation to neuroethics, where ethics is not just a matter of ticking boxes, but rather an approach in which ethical reflection and debate are considered integrated aspects of the research process.
We look forward to the next step, developing the topic for the Mixing of Minds process in even more depth!
Written by Lise Bitsch, HBP lead on responsible research and innovation, Danish Board of Technology, and Nicklas Bang Bådum and Malene Nørskov Bødker, HBP public engagement, Danish Board of Technology