I would like to start this blog post, which should be read in conjunction with the post by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, by thanking Kristin for her work and underlining that I see it as an outstanding example of the fruitful collaboration on ethical issues in the Human Brain Project (HBP).
A few years ago we proposed that a good way of understanding how the HBP has structured its programme of responsible research and innovation (RRI) would be to see it as a discourse (Stahl et al., 2019). This view is the reason why this blog was called “ethics dialogues”. The RRI work that started in the Ethics and Society programme of the HBP in 2013 and is set to continue until the end of the project in 2023 – and in ways yet to be determined in the post-HBP EBRAINS infrastructure – is based on the principles of discourse ethics as developed by the German philosophers Juergen Habermas (2006, 1983) and Karl-Otto Apel (1990). Translated into the practice of a large-scale project such as the HBP it means that nobody can claim to have a complete understanding of the ethical and social issues that are likely to arise and there is no privileged position that allows for clear and unambiguous solutions to these issues. Instead, there is a recognition that these issues are typically messy and ambiguous, they depend on context and interpretation. In many cases they require further research to be better understood. Dealing with them calls for a discourse, i.e. the open exchange about the issues with all those who are affected by them. This discourse is used to determine and define issues, problems and questions as well as acceptable and workable solutions, often temporary ones. They require a culture of reflexivity and a willingness to engage with often uncomfortable questions.
One important set of participants in this HBP dialogue around ethical and social issues are the members of the Ethics Advisory Board (EAB). This board was set up early in the project and comprises experts who are selected on the basis of their knowledge of relevant ethical, social, legal and other aspects of the work undertaken in the HBP. The composition of the EAB has changed over the years, reflecting the changing nature and focus of the HBP. The EAB members are independent experts who are not signatories of the HBP research contract. Over the years they have contributed to many discussions in the HBP. In particular they have a prominent role in working with a set of dedicated HBP members, the so-called Ethics Rapporteurs, to discuss the specific work undertaken across the different sub-projects and work packages of the project.
One of the consequences of the work of the EAB was the development of the Standard Operating Procedure on conflicts of interest. Everybody has interests and in many cases these can come into conflict. Most of us experience this on a regular basis, for example when our role as a parent conflicts with the role of a researcher or when our interest in promoting our pet theory conflicts with our interest in providing an impartial editorial judgement. Having interest is normal and having these interests come into conflict with one another is also part of everyday life.
In the academic world conflicting interests can become problematic when they lead to a perception of bias and prejudice or when personal interests dictate academic decisions and outcomes that should be driven by academic considerations. This can lead to personal or organisational embarrassments but it can also cause a loss of trust in the research system. As conflicting interests cannot be eliminated, due to the pervasive set of interests all of us have, the way in which conflicting interests can be dealt with is through openness and transparency. A first step to identifying conflicting interests is to be clear about which interests exist, which is the necessary precondition for identifying conflicts and dealing with them. For HBP members to come forward with conflicting issues, there needs to be a no-blame culture that emphasises positive resolutions.
The HBP SOP that the EAB was instrumental in developing was based on these ideas. At its heart was the creation of a register of interest that all members of the main governance bodies of the project had to fill in once a year. This SOP has been in force since 2016. The dialogues surrounding the creation of the register demonstrated the value of the dialogical approach. It became clear when preparing and implementing the SOP that the levels of openness and transparency concerning interests, in particular personal financial interests, differs greatly between different scholars. Key dividing lines were those of academic disciplines, where the members of some disciplines were used to very detailed scrutiny of their interests, whereas this was much less the case for others. Similarly, there were notable national and cultural differences with some jurisdictions enforcing a large amount of financial transparency while in others financial matters are generally regarded as confidential. A further issue was the variable level of awareness of and interest in engaging with conflicting interests. The dialogues about what constitutes an acceptable level of transparency were not always easy and they formed part of the initial implementation of the SOP.
The EAB not only supported the creation of the SOP but also agreed to accompany its implementation. As part of this work, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, and Blaise Yvert, co-chair of the EAB, reviewed the registry of interest and highlighted some observations that she summarised in her blog post. These matters were raised in the Science and Infrastructure Board and the Directorate, the two executive governance bodies of the project. As a result of these meetings and subsequent discussions, the HBP Project Coordination Office, in particular the HBP governance manager and I in consultation with the EAB developed a new policy, which will hopefully be clearer in terms of expectations and practice. In addition to better templates and clearer support, the new SOP also defines more clearly the responsibilities of the chairs of the governance bodies who have to take ownership of the registry and reflect on the interests that prevail in their area of responsibility.
At this point I would like to celebrate this development as an excellent example of the collaboration between EAB and HBP and the dialogical approach we pursue. This in no way means that I think that we have resolved all conflicts of interest. As indicated earlier, conflicts of interest, like many other ethical issues, are not subject to resolution. They will not go away. The trick is to be aware of them and not to be complacent and to manage them appropriately when they arise. I am optimistic that the new SOP will make it easier for the HBP to do so. As the SOP covers the HBP, a follow-on question is how the EBRAINS research infrastructure, the legacy of the HBP, will address conflicts of interest. As it will have a different governance structure, it may well require a different approach. However, by establishing the SOP for the HBP, we have provided a clear signal of the importance of these issues and provided what I am convinced is a good example of how these issues can be addressed.
Conflicting interests can be resolved by dialogue, but for that they need to be subject of the dialogue. Our new SOP will encourage such dialogues and thus contribute to the HBP’s dialogical approach to ethical and social issues. And thanks to the support from the EAB these dialogues will now take place at a higher level of transparency which will not only reduce risks for the HBP but also contribute to the acceptability, desirability and sustainability of the research undertaken within the HBP, EBRAINS and the scientific system more generally.
Apel, K.-O., 1990. Diskurs und Verantwortung.: Das Problem des Übergangs zur postkonventionellen Moral. Suhrkamp Verlag KG.
Habermas, J., 2006. Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, 4., Aufl. ed. Suhrkamp.
Habermas, J., 1983. Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M, Germany.
Stahl, B.C., Akintoye, S., Fothergill, B.T., Guerrero, M., Knight, W., Ulnicane, I., 2019. Beyond Research Ethics: Dialogues in Neuro-ICT Research. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00105