How can we continue to build even more responsible practices of brain research? This was the central question on the Human Brain Project’s (HBP) online conference on February 2nd, 2023. Work on responsible research and innovation (RRI) in the HBP has taken many forms, including Europe-wide citizen engagement, dialogue, engagement and co-creation with stakeholder and professionals, interdisciplinary working groups and embedded tasks.
The conference saw a line-up of high-level international experts in RRI, interdisciplinary collaboration, research policy and brain research governance and coalition building. In four sessions they explored the future potential of approaches to responsible research and innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, pitfalls and opportunity, the overlap between AI -and neuroethics, and mapped out pathways for future collaboration and research.
Exploring Novel Approaches to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)
Rene von Schomberg (University of Aachen), opened the first session of the conference. Building on historical cases of innovation in neurotechnologies he pointed to the continuous need for better governance mechanisms of science, technology, and innovation that commit to societal objectives at all levels of development. Stevienna de Saille (University of Sheffield), introduced her work building inclusivity and reflection on the value propositions driving science and technology development. Developed countries especially should take responsibility for asking questions on the direction of science and technology and developed processes that are inclusive and build on values and needs other than the discourse of economic growth. From within the Human Brain Project (HBP). Ethics director, Bernd Stahl (de Montfort University), introduced the HBP’s discursive approach to ethics, and how the challenge is not the ethical issues themselves, but developing ways to discover and address them collectively. Nicklas Bådum (Danish Board of Technology Foundation) introduced public -and citizen engagement as an approach to creating spaces for dialogue and understanding, for bringing new perspectives and knowledge into conversations of desirable directions for science, technology and innovation. Manuel Guerrero (Uppsala University), introduced the ethics rapporteur programme of the HBP as a concrete way of discovering ethical issues in interdisciplinary conversation, building mutual understanding and capacities along the way. Karin Grasenick (CONVELOP) closed the panel with her experiences building processes and structures for gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in the HBP. Importantly the need for coalitions of power, strategic communication and inclusion of all levels of hierarchies in such collaborations.
The session audience highlighted the words “ethics”, “collaboration”, “co-creation” in the Word Cloud of the session. Words that resonated with the panelists in the ensuing discussion. Key points included the need for much more focus on inter-institutional collaboration, and for policy-makers and funders to take responsibility for shaping the conditions for more collaborative, co-creative and societally driven research, technology -and innovation agendas. If they do not, the direction of innovation will be left to market forces that do not necessarily innovate in alignment with public needs and values.
The first session was chaired by Lise Bitsch (Danish Board of Technology Foundation)
Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Challenges, Lessons Learned and Ways Ahead
The second session on interdisciplinary collaboration was chaired by Inga Ulnicane (De Montfort University). As the first session had already demonstrated, the topic of RRI is very closely connected to interdisciplinary collaboration. Responsible brain research requires bringing together diverse competencies and perspectives from neuroscience, computing, social science, humanities, and other fields. Our guest speakers Karen Rommelfanger (Institute of Neuroethics) and Nina Frahm (Aarhus University) introduced comparative perspectives of approaches followed by different international brain initiatives. Our HBP colleagues Simisola Akintoye (De Montfort University), Francisca Nordfalk (Danish Board of Technology) and Michele Farisco (Uppsala University) shared reflections from their experience collaborating within the HBP. Topics that repeatedly came up in the discussion included the importance of epistemic humility, common language, and shared understandings. The session also discussed the topic of informal hierarchies among disciplines. When the audience was asked ‘what words come to mind when you think about interdisciplinary collaboration?’, the word that came up most often was ‘challenge’ but it was also mentioned that interdisciplinary collaboration is very important for the future of research.
Keynote by Marcello Ienca “On Brains and Machines: The Common Ethical Ground of AI and Neuroscience”
In his keynote lecture, Dr Marcello Ienca (TUM) focused on a timely topic: the need to articulate a unified ethical framework to address the issues raised by neuroscience and artificial intelligence research. He began by offering an overview of the different ways in which AI supports neuroscience research and promises to enhance diagnosis and treatment in both neurology and psychiatry as well as to facilitate the development of more effective neurotechnologies. However, he also noted that this promising outlook requires the careful identification, assessment, and management of the ethical challenges raised at the intersection of neuroscience and AI, particularly considering the potentially transformative nature of AI approaches in brain and mental health. Ienca highlighted some of those challenges (e.g. threats to neuroprivacy and accountability) and outlined diverse attempts (e.g. the Neurorights Initiative among others) to address them. Ienca closed by emphasising the need for joint interdisciplinary work to explore common ethical ground between neuroscience and AI to foster the responsible development and application of AI assisted neuroscience.
The keynote lecture was chaired by Arleen Salles (Uppsala University).
Future Perspectives on Responsible Brain Science
The Final session was chaired by Kathinka Evers (Uppsala University). In this session, the focus was on collecting reflections for future development of responsible brain science. With the benefit of experience from different disciplines and approaches, the invited experts offered their insights on the topic.
Prof. Judy Illes opened the session with the key point that local and global engagement go together to shape a future sensitive of past lessons, mindful of diversity in all its forms, careful and responsible in its expectations to ethics and neuroscience. Dana Foundation President, Caroline Montojo, shared the foundation’s vision for continuing its work on responsible brain science that benefit society and reflect the aspiration of all people, through three programmatic pillars, education, training, and public engagement. Laura Y. Cabrera, shared her insights from working as chair of the IEEE Brain Neuroethics Subcommittee. To continue developing responsible brain science, engineers must be involved and engaged with neuroethics, conversations with many different publics must be nurtured to grow mindfulness of culture and ensuring no one is left behind improvements in mental and brain health, and the need for better support and organisational structures that ensures we collaborate and cocreate future solutions that build on past knowledge. Nikolaos Kastrinos (DG Research and Innovation, the European Commission) made the key point that foresight brings with it the responsibility to act, and that responsibility bears on the shoulders of leadership. As the final speaker, Pawel Swieboda, CEO of EBRAINS made three key points. The first, on EBRAINS as a purpose-driven research infrastructure guided by its vision for ethics and society and serving the public good, the second on how EBRAINS is developing structures for integrating ethical principles at the heart of developing new technologies, and the third and final point on the need for more specific regulatory guidelines on implementation of medical device regulation in the field of neurotechnologies in combination with building strategic research agendas across large scale programme that integrate an ethical dimension.
The conference showed, that in the ten years, since the Human Brain Project began, approaches to responsible brain science have greatly developed. Issues of ethics and society are reaching across communities of neuroscientists, neuroethicists, philosophers, engineers, social scientists, policymakers professionals associations, philanthropical organisations and funders, to unite us in a quest for mindful, inclusive and responsible futures. With the great leadership that is shown, and the commitment of young generation of scientists, engineers, and other professionals to co-create, open and inclusive conversations, we end on a hopeful note about the future of responsible brain research.