This text was prepared jointly by Damian Okaibedi Eke, Mathew Abrams, Simi Akintoye, George Ogoh, Paschal Ochang, and Oluyinka Oyeniji on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
21st March is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This offers an occasion to especially reflect on and highlight the important contributions of Black community members to neuroscience. Awareness for these matters has long been neglected, as the grassroots initiative Black In Neuro, which evolved in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, showed. Black in Neuro’s mission is to diversify the neurosciences by building a community that celebrates and empowers Black scholars and professionals in neuroscience-related fields. The initiative offers a member directory list of more than 400 profiles of Black researchers working in neuroscience and related fields, including researchers that are part of the Black HBP community.
The HBP’s Diversity and Equal Opportunities Committee (DEOC) wants to contribute by highlighting the critical work Black researchers and managers of science do within the HBP. The roles and fields of Black HBP community members are very diverse, addressing core aspects of the HBP and EBRAINS (the research infrastructure that will be the end-product of the Human Brain Project’s work). From research on data governance and data protection, ensuring that the process and outcomes of the project align with privacy and data protection regulation, to the development of the KnowledgeSpace, a global service supported by EBRAINS that catalogues data and models from 17 of the world’s leading neuroscience repositories and links them to their related neuroscience concepts (ontology terms), to ethical and social matters, more specifically collaborative research on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), and the influence of culture on neuroethics within sub-Saharan Africa.
The benefits of diversity
There are many benefits to the interdisciplinary nature of the project, especially the collaboration with other researchers and managers of science. “It involves people of different backgrounds, not only in nationalities but also in areas of interest, research and career path. This by itself reflects the enormous potential of international brain research and reach”, as says Oluyinka Oyeniji, doctoral researcher from the Center for Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University
For George Ogoh, research fellow at De Montfort University, one of the highlights are also related to the potential for enabling more responsible brain research, by co-leading the capacity development programme on responsible research and innovation (RRI) in the HBP. It aims to build the capacities of users of the EBRAINS infrastructure on RRI related topics such as neuroethics, data governance, dual use, diversity, etc.
Mathew Abrams, Head of Science and Training at the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility, also highlighted the collaboration with other team members: “Working with the members of the ontology engineering and openMINDS development teams which are composed of a dedicated group of young, talented neuroscientists. They have made the difficult task of ontology engineering and metadata development fun and exciting.”
Damian Okaibedi Eke, the Human Brain Project’s Data Governance Coordinator, and research fellow at De Montfort University, reports working with the Data Governance Working Group as one of the highlights, in addition to representing the HBP at the International Brain Initiative (IBI) Data Standards and Sharing Working Group and leading the IBI Task Force on International Data Governance (IDG).
Simi Akintoye, Data Protection Officer for the HBP, a senior lecturer at De Montfort, University, identifies developing and implementing strategic policies and procedures in relation to privacy, ethics and responsibility through her work with the HBP as one of the highlights, including critical discussions around these concepts.
Engagement with HBP project members was a memorable highlight for many Black HBP members, including attending their first HBP Summit or HBP Student Conference. The student community, i.e. the future talents of neuroscience, is of great importance in the HBP: “One of the highlights of working with the HBP is being voted as the student representative to represent the HBP Student Community in the HBP Education Programme Committee for the first part of SGA 3” confirms Paschal Ochang, PhD student at De Montfort University.
Lastly, one of the measures launched by the DEOC, namely the HBP High Potential Mentoring Programme, offered the highlight of serving as an HBP mentor for Mathew Abrams. The mentoring programme is currently open for registration, offering accompanying training for everyone interested in career development and leadership experiences. Oluyinka Oyeniji underlines the HBP’s role in career planning: “It is a place that could help model an evolving career path according to the changing dynamics in the world we live in.”
Societal norms, structures and the challenges faced
As the HBP is a scientific project, and as such also part of the academic system, evolving challenges reflect that very system, including societal norms and structures.
“As a Black female academic, one can be faced with multiple layers of challenges first as Black and secondly as a Female. This is a societal issue that needs to be addressed. Secondly, there is the imposter syndrome that black female academics tend to face at work which involves doubting your own abilities and second-guessing your professionalism. To overcome this, organisations need to create an enabling environment that tackles systemic racism by fostering diversity, leadership and gender equality in the workplace. Within the HBP this is being addressed and I am privileged to work with a very supportive team in my role,” Simi Akintoye reports.
As in other scientific projects, research development within the HBP is evolving to meet the needs that arise in dynamic societies. The diversity of research areas and cultures play an important role. Due to the large and evolving nature of the HBP, “one challenge has been to stay up to date and to continuously advocate for the importance and benefits of my deliverables”, says Mathew Abrams. Damian Okaibedi Eke shares this impression and George Ogoh adds that multidisciplinary collaboration is one of the challenges, especially to engage the already very busy researchers, scientists and technologists in activities related to the ethical and societal aspects of the project.
For such complex and large-scale projects, Oluyinka Oyeniji points out that “it would be a welcome development to appropriately define what diversity entails and how present and future research projects may ensure inclusivity and cater to the vulnerable and under-represented. To foster better international collaborations within the neuroscience space, conscious efforts may have to be made for the active incorporation of activities in the Global South and developing countries.”
Adding to this, Damian Okaibedi Eke also shares his final thoughts: “As a black researcher, I am very happy to be part of what the HBP has done and EBRAINS will do in the new era of neuroscience research and innovation built on cutting-edge computing technologies. I hope this regional and increasingly global and collaborative neuroscience research ecosystem will continue to be inclusive enough to involve scientists and researchers from Africa and other developing economies.”