On May 14 the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 1). This report on neuroscience and related ethical issues emphasizes the importance of integrating ethics into neuroscience research across the life of a research endeavor. Ethics integration is a process by which scientists and ethicists engage with each other, and often other stakeholders, to understand the social and ethical dimensions of their work, including the relationship between science and the societal context in which it operates.
Gray Matters, Vol. 1 contains four recommendations for integrating ethics into neuroscience research. In its second recommendation, the Bioethics Commission called for evaluating existing and innovative approaches to ethics integration. Specifically the Commission recommended that:
Government agencies and other research funders should initiate and support research that evaluates existing as well as innovative approaches to ethics integration. Institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research should take into account the best available evidence for what works when implementing, modifying, or improving systems for ethics integration.
The Bioethics Commission emphasized that institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research should learn from collective experience to improve existing systems and inform others about what works and what does not. In addition, they should evaluate innovative approaches to prevent reliance on approaches that are familiar, but potentially outdated, inefficient, or counterproductive. Funders, institutions, and researchers should look to best practices while evaluating existing and new approaches to integration in order to inform innovation, foster improvement, and measure success. Researchers should share widely their findings and conclusions to support more robust and informed ethics integration.
In Gray Matters, Vol. 1, the Bioethics Commission highlighted several implementation strategies for ethics integration into scientific research. One such strategy is ethics integration through research ethics consultation. An example consultation service is the Benchside Ethics Consultation Service (BECS) at Stanford University, which makes ethics advice available through all stages of research to bench scientists, clinical researchers, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, institutional review boards, journal editors, and research participants. Evaluating the impact of research ethics consultation services, assessing the quality of their recommendations, and providing best practices for creating and maintaining these services are crucial to their success and the success of future integration efforts. Dr. Mildred Cho described to the Bioethics Commission that evaluation is a priority for the BECS:
“[An] important aspect of this [integration] for us has been trying to think about what it means to have a successful program in research ethics consultation and what is a successful consultation service, which obviously requires definition of what the goals are….You have to really think about what the goals are. Is it engagement in and of itself or are there other products that you would like to see that come out of that?”
She explained that researchers are examining factors such as “whether uptake of the service has increased [and] whether the stage of utilization…has increased.” Other measures of success might include “products such as publications, modifications to research projects, [and] policy changes” as well as “researcher satisfaction and attitudes.”
Executed well, ethics integration is an iterative and reflective process that enhances both scientific and ethical rigor. It assists neuroscientists in recognizing fundamental ethical and social dimensions of the complex phenomena they seek to understand. The Bioethics Commission’s recommendations are intended to strengthen ethics integration infrastructure for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and neuroscience more broadly, ensuring that this important science will advance the public good.