How Do You Get Involved in Neuroethics?

by Nicky Penttila

November 11, 2011

How does one get involved in the field of neuroethics? For most everyone these days, it is "a long story," a roundabout route. But within the next generations that all may change, said panelists Thursday at a workshop during the International Neuroethics Society's annual meeting.

For example, panelist Emily Murphy started out as a basic-science researcher, but then did post-doc work in neuroethics at the Stanford Center for Medical Ethics. A few more twists and turns, and now she is a third-year law student, planning to clerk for a judge in the summer, while still pursuing neuroethics research. The link? A seed planted during her last undergrad year at Harvard—a class on the brain and the law.

"You enter the field almost always obliquely," Paul Root Wolpe of Emory told the audience. "You get into bioethics through a story." When Wolpe went to college, nobody studied neuroethics: "Most people had absolutely no idea what the word meant. When the first master's student in bioethics graduated from Emory [in 2008], he was immediately more accredited than anyone else in the department."  

So what are we who want to investigate the societal implications of neuroscience to do? The panelists had three main veins of advice.

First, get a credential, be it a Ph.D., a doctor's license, a law degree, or some other accreditation. That's what will get you a place on the committees, panels, and working groups, and get your foot in the door of politicos and social and medical agencies looking for someone to help them make sense of the science. "Credentials count," said Alan Leshner of AAAS. "You don't get to sit at the table unless you have a credential." It doesn't need to be a hard-science degree, though you should know the basics at least. "A lot of the questions we ask … don't require deep knowledge," Wolpe said. "What you're talking about is the implications of the neuroscience," not explaining its granular details.

Second, "the way to start doing it is to start doing it," Leshner advised. In courses or out, learn all you can about the ethical areas that interest you, and spread the word—especially in writing. Write essays and opinion pieces for local papers or websites that describe ethical issues that come up in the news, like brain enhancement and determining consciousness—or  whether Michael Jackson's doctor should have been convicted. And while the field is still young, it already has journals devoted to it. Wolpe edits the AJOB Neuroscience, said one of the journal's formats is to commission "target articles" and then a few responses to it. Writing one of those responses is a great way to get noticed.

In addition, attend events like the Society's meetings, and also look for related lectures or debates that are outside the field, such as the "science and technical studies" groups at some universities and a lecture from a visiting professor. You never know who you will run into: A researcher who needs a post-doc, a college administrator who needs a lecturer, or a legislator who could use an assistant who can give her advice. Part of getting this sort of job is serendipity, and "you increase your serendipity by going to places where the people you want to meet are," said Hank Greely, director of the program in neuroethics at the Stanford Center for Bioethics.

Third, don't expect it will be a full-time job. None of the four panelists does neuroethics full-time, and together they could come up with fewer than five people in the world who do. But the need is great: Nearly everyone wants to know how the mind works, and ethical questions arising from advances in science technology, especially, will only gain in prominence. "We're in a transition phase," Leshner said, "where you sort of have to be something else." 

Because it's so new, "this is something you can dedicate part of your career to, and still rise," said Wolpe. Become the go-to person on your medical team; offer to facilitate discussions with your faculty. You might quickly get a reputation that will stretch outside your department or office.

And in any case, being in a field outside science might be beneficial. Many of the questions neuroethicists ask ("Who should use Ritalin?" "Should we force predators to take a pill?") can't be answered by scientists alone. They are questions for the whole of society, including doctors, sociologists, educators, lawyers and judges, and all the rest of us. 

Neuroethical questions are "a multidisciplinary problem," Leshner said, "and it won't be answered by any of us who are entrenched in our own discipline."

Even though today's meeting took place in the same town the day before Neuroscience 2011, where tens of thousands of neuroscientists will meet and share research, the majority of audience members were not brain scientists. A good number studied or are studying law, medicine, ethics, and philosopy.

Sounds like a good sign for the field.