The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) recently released Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 1). The report is the first of a two-volume response from the Bioethics Commission to President Obama’s July 2013 request. As part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative the President asked the Bioethics Commission to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards—both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.” The BRAIN Initiative, launched by the President in April 2013, aims to “revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.”
In Gray Matters, Vol. 1, the Bioethics Commission addressed the need for the integration of ethics and neuroscience across the life of a research endeavor, making four recommendations. The first of these recommendations called for integrating ethics early and explicitly throughout neuroscience research. Specifically the Commission recommended that:
Institutions and individuals engaged in neuroscience research should integrate ethics across the life of a research endeavor, identifying the key ethical questions associated with their research and taking immediate steps to make explicit their systems for addressing those questions. Sufficient resources should be dedicated to support ethics integration.
Approaches to ethics integration discussed by the Bioethics Commission include:
- Implementing ethics education at all levels;
- Developing institutional infrastructure to facilitate integration;
- Researching the ethical, legal, and social implications of scientific research;
- Providing research ethics consultation services;
- Engaging with stakeholders; and
- Including an ethics perspective on the research team.
The Bioethics Commission stressed that those involved in research have a responsibility to identify and address the ethical issues that arise throughout the scientific research process. According to the Bioethics Commission, integrating ethics in science should allow for productive dialogue and collaboration between experts in many fields including the social sciences, the life sciences, medicine, law, history, and philosophy, among others. The Bioethics Commission recognized that, in various ways, ethics is already integrated into the scientific enterprise as it is in many human activities. However, the Bioethics Commission emphasized the importance of making implicit ethical judgments explicit, and implementing ethics integration systematically. The Bioethics Commission explained that institutions and individuals might adopt different approaches to integrating ethics and neuroscience research depending on the context in which they act.
Notably, as part of this recommendation, the Bioethics Commission acknowledged that if something is not appropriately funded, it does not get done. Thus it called for dedicating sufficient financial resources, human capital, and expertise to support integrating ethics and neuroscience research.
Integrating ethics early and explicitly will lay the foundation for successful integration of ethics throughout neuroscience research, equipping scientists, ethicists, and the public to handle the societal implications of these scientific advances.