Bioethics Blogs

Neuroscience and Human Rights

Last month, I had the privilege of attending the International Neuroethics Society Meeting in Washington, DC, made possible by a travel award from the Emory Neuroethics Program. This year’s meeting featured panelists from diverse backgrounds: government, neuroscience, ethics, law, engineering, public health, and others. Each participant and attendee offered her unique perspectives on topical issues in neuroethics.

As I listened to many thought-provoking presentations and discussions, a question kept arising in my mind: to what extent should scientists engage with issues of social justice if their research findings support changes in public policy? As a “war on science” continues to be waged by members of the U.S. Senate and Congress (see Senator Coburn’s 2014 “Wastebook,” and the recent NPR Science Friday response by targeted scientists) and the American public lags in scientific literacy (A NSF report this year found that 1 in 4 Americans think the sun orbits the earth), this question carries a particular sense of urgency. Isn’t science supposed to support human flourishing and maximize our well-being, as the American Association for the Advancement of Science puts it, “for the benefit of all people?” How accountable should scientists be in ensuring that this actually happens, beyond the scope of their laboratories?

My reflections on these questions were ignited by a fascinating example of how neuroscience can inform policy, provided by Katy de Kogel of the Dutch Ministry of Justice. Dr. de Kogel spoke of recent shifts in Dutch criminal law that reflect neuroscientific consensus: the neural substrates that support decision-making are not fully “online” in the developing, adolescent brain.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.