What is EBRAINS and why the need for an Ethics and Society vision? The emerging European research infrastructure EBRAINS is one of the main legacies of the 10-year EU flagship Human Brain Project or HBP, as it is often called. From the start, the European Commission and partners in the project recognised the need for reflection and action on the ethical and societal issues raised by this kind of research endeavour. Therefore, between 3-5% of the overall project budget has consistently been dedicated to work on ethical and societal issues.

In 2023, the Human Brain project will end. The project’s legacy, EBRAINS, is already on the ESFRI (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures) Roadmap toward becoming a future EU research infrastructure. ESFRI is a strategic instrument to develop the scientific integration of Europe and strengthen its international outreach (https://www.esfri.eu/). EBRAINS has started operations with headquarters in Brussels. But the ethics of neuroscience, neurotechnologies and AI, data, data governance and AI have not become less relevant over the years. Some of the questions are becoming more urgent than ever. To meet the ethical and societal challenges that EBRAINS is facing, the HBP created a project-level task force that has worked to develop pathways to continue this important work. The result is a vision on Ethics and Society, comprising one of the first tangible results of that work.

Developing the vision

The HBP ethics and society task force was formed in December of 2019, on the initiative of the work package devoted to responsible research and innovation in the project. The task force is chaired by the EBRAINS CEO and HBP Director General Pawel Swieboda. The task force members represent a wide range of activities and working groups across the project: from data governance and dual-use to public engagement, neuroethics and philosophy (full list of members here).

The key elements of the vision are built on the work on ethical and social issues that have taken place in the HBP over the last ten years. The vision was developed as a first step towards defining a path for integrating principles and practice of responsible innovation in EBRAINS.  To find the final pieces of the puzzle for the vision, we organised an international workshop, inviting prominent researchers and other leading figures of brain science, ethics and responsible development from across the world.

What does it say?

In the future, brain science and research, combined with new digital and computing tools, will present exciting opportunities for a better understanding of the human brain. At the same time, questions of human identity, consciousness, (human)rights, privacy and mental privacy, and new forms of discrimination and bias emerge. To meet these challenges, the EBRAINS vision on ethics and society is focused on the need to promote and uphold human rights in the face of emerging neuroscience and neurotechnologies.

The vision also includes the need to engage in culturally sensitive dialogue with society, patients and other vulnerable groups to understand and implement societal values into the design of EBRAINS, its structure and technologies. Furthermore, EBRAINS aims to work proactively, anticipating the future impacts of EBRAINS research and outcomes, looking ahead to develop the ability to act to steer these in positive directions.

The full text of the vision can be found on the EBRAINS website.

Future work

The vision presents the starting point and ambition for EBRAINS to be — and work as — a responsible research infrastructure. Towards the end of the HBP, it is also becoming clear that funding for implementing this vision is required from more than one source. The next key step in realising implementation in EBRAINS is to find organisations and funders whose vision aligns with the EBRAINS vision that is also able to help realise it- This will include an effort to collaborate in partnerships, both within Europe and beyond. 

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