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Posted on October 20, 2021 at 6:22 PM

by Nicole Martinez-Martin, JD, PhD; Laura Y. Cabrera, PhD and Timothy E. Brown, PhD

The novelist Arundhati Roy wrote that, historically, pandemics force humans to break with the past — that this pandemic is a portal through which we could walk “ready to imagine another world.” The Covid-19 pandemic provides a moment of reckoning, starkly illuminating societal inequality and the enormous toll taken on marginalized groups, including racialized minorities, the elderly, LGBTQI+, women, and people with disabilities, from historical and ongoing social injustices. For the field of neuroethics, the upcoming virtual annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society, (INS), November 4 and 5, provides a vital opportunity to come together to assess the lessons from the past and create a path forward for a neuroethics that centers social justice as a key theme for scholarship and engagement.

Neuroethics is the study of the social, legal, and ethical implications of the brain and behavioral sciences. Neuroethics regularly engages issues of identity, agency, moral responsibility, and personhood. The brain and behavioral sciences play important roles in shaping understandings and norms regarding human behavior and even of how we think of ourselves as humans. Neurotechnologies for modifying, monitoring or even controlling human behavior have applications in a range of social institutions, including medicine, education, and criminal justice.

Neuroscience and neurotechnologies offer many benefits to society, but there remain troubling questions regarding who is included and who is excluded from those benefits. The historic roots of the brain sciences include endeavors used to justify racism and slavery. Echoes of 1800s phrenology persist in recent uses of neuroscience to support criminal justice practices that target minoritized populations or ableist practices in medicine. Internationally, the legacies of colonialism and imperialism can be seen in the inequitable funding of neuroscience research in low- and middle-income countries and exclusion of many communities and cultures from the process of setting research agendas.

Social justice is a broad term capturing the ongoing history of work toward equity across geographic, economic, social, and cultural boundaries. In more recent years, social justice, in its various forms, has become a growing concern in neuroethics, such as examining bias and the social impact of neurotechnologiesresponsible innovation, and engagement of stakeholder perspectives that reveal critical equity issues in neuroscience research. For example, former INS president Judy Illes and Louisa Harding have prioritized outreach efforts to include indigenous perspectives on genetic and neuroscience research in their communities. The International Brain Initiative andNeuroGenE provide models for initiatives to equitably engage in neuroscience and mental health research internationally.

In the past year, Francis X. Shen and Olivia Matshabane wrote powerful calls-to-action for scholars in neuroethics and neuroscience to address social justice, emphasizing the need for diverse researchers and inclusion of research participants from minoritized communities. The Diversity & Inclusion Task Force of the INS, chaired by Tim Brown, conducted listening sessions and organized webinars on scientific oppression in neurotechnology and culturally-aware global neuroethics. Under Nita Farahany’s leadership, the INS is dedicating this year’s annual meeting to furthering these important conversations regarding justice and neuroethics. The broader community of people interested in this intersection of ethics and the brain and behavioral sciences are invited to join in these conversations.

Neuroethicsts need to reflect upon ways to develop the field’s articulation of and commitment to social justice. The prioritization of cutting-edge technology as a focus for neuroscience and neuroethics research has meant that efforts to address structural and social determinants of brain health often languish. While the field of neuroethics has long focused on issues of free will and punishment, more attention is needed to how systemic issues of racism or ableism in government and medical institutions interact with neuroscience applications in criminal justice, addiction policy, and medicine. Engagement of broader interdisciplinary perspectives is needed in order to develop more nuanced conversations around how racial, gender, disability, and other identities intersect and interact with brain research and neurotechnologies.

Conversations that require the re-examination of assumptions and foundational concepts can move people out of their comfort zones.

As the program committee began planning, we saw that “social justice” in neuroethics can mean many different things, depending upon who is asked. Given that the program committee is made up of members from around the world, it quickly became apparent that the words used to express social justice concerns, the underlying concepts of race or marginalization, or what counts as a salient social justice concern, are not always legible or consistent across countries and cultures. For that reason, the meeting’s opening session will initiate a discussion among attendees and neuroethics leaders on what is meant by “social justice” and associated concepts and practices. 

Conversations that require the re-examination of assumptions and foundational concepts can move people out of their comfort zones. These conversations are necessary for strengthening the field of neuroethics and for advancing excellence in the brain sciences.

The INS annual meeting program will place a spotlight on important and emerging topics in neuroethics related to social justice, including mental health equity, values and priorities in global neuroscience research, and environmentalneuroethics. Topics such as the use of the brain sciences to predict criminality or AI-driven neurotechnologies will be examined by a broad range of global perspectives with attention to the impact on marginalized groups and equity.  The broader community of people interested in this intersection of ethics and the brain and behavioral sciences are invited to join in these conversations.

Equally important to the selection of neuroethics topics, the program committee strove to place social justice practices at the heart of the meeting’s format and approach. The virtual setting allows broader inclusion of expertise from around the world and increased ability to support attendance from a broad range of communities and backgrounds. The program intentionally prioritizes interaction and discussion among attendees, with sessions and workshops (such as Developing an Anti-Racist Neuroscience, Brain and Mental Privacy, Depictions of Disability and Storytelling in Neuroethics), as well as mentorship activities, aimed at bringing new voices to important conversations and collectively exploring next steps for action and collaboration.

Overall, the opportunity to come together at the INS annual meeting is exciting – providing the chance to connect and to create our path to a better world.

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