It its latest report, Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 1), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) emphasizes the need to integrate science and ethics in neuroscience. This report is the first part of the Bioethics Commission’s response to President Obama’s charge 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” as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Recent blog posts have outlined the first three recommendations put forth by the Bioethics Commission in Gray Matters, Vol. 1. The first recommendation underscores the importance of integrating ethics early and throughout the life of a research project. The second recommendation highlights the need to evaluate different approaches to science and ethics integration. The third recommendation calls for ethics education at all levels. The final recommendation, discussed in more detail here, addresses inclusion of those with expertise in ethics in scientific governance in neuroscience. Specifically the Commission recommended that “BRAIN Initiative-related scientific advisory and funding review bodies should include substantive participation by persons with relevant expertise in the ethical and societal implications of the neuroscience research under consideration.”
Underlying this recommendation is a vision of science and ethics integration that goes beyond checking off the “ethics box” by avoiding formulaic or strictly regulatory-focused approaches. To achieve this aim, public and private institutions funding neuroscience research should reflect on how important decisions with ethical and social dimensions, as well as the potential to shape the direction of scientific fields—such as those about which research projects to fund—are made. By elucidating the structures and processes involved in decision-making, institutions will be better able to include ethicists in ways that result in substantive participation. The end goal is to strengthen institutional processes, ranging from advisory groups that shape an organization’s overall research portfolio to individual grant review panels, such that ethics integration becomes an ordinary part of how good research is done.