The word ethical framework evokes the idea of something rigid and separating, like the fence around the garden. The research that emerges within the framework is dynamic and constantly new. However, to ensure safety, it is placed in an ethical framework that sets clear boundaries for what researchers are allowed to do in their work.
That this is an oversimplified picture is clear after reading an inventive discussion of ethical frameworks in neuroscientific research projects, such as the Human Brain Project. The article is written by Arleen Salles and Michele Farisco at CRB and is published in AJOB Neuroscience.
The article questions not only the image of ethical frameworks as static boundaries for dynamic research activities. Inspired by ideas within so-called responsible research and innovation (RRI), the image that research can be separated from ethics and society is also questioned.
Researchers tend to regard research as their own concern. However, there are tendencies towards increasing collaboration not only across disciplinary boundaries, but also with stakeholders such as patients, industry and various forms of extra-scientific expertise. These tendencies make research an increasingly dispersed, common concern. Not only in retrospect in the form of applications, which presupposes that the research effort can be separated, but already when research is initiated, planned and carried out.
This could sound threatening, as if foreign powers were influencing the free search for truth. Nevertheless, there may also be something hopeful in the development. To see the hopeful aspect, however, we need to free ourselves from the image of ethical frameworks as static boundaries, separate from dynamic research.
With examples from the Human Brain Project, Arleen Salles and Michele Farisco try to show how ethical challenges in neuroscience projects cannot always be controlled in advance, through declared principles, values and guidelines. Even ethical work is dynamic and requires living intelligent attention. The authors also try to show how ethical attention reaches all he way into the neuroscientific issues, concepts and working conditions.
When research on the human brain is not aware of its own cultural and societal conditions, but takes them for granted, it may mean that relevant questions are not asked and that research results do not always have the validity that one assumes they have.
We thus have good reasons to see ethical and societal reflections as living parts of neuroscience, rather than as rigid frameworks around it.
Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.
Arleen Salles & Michele Farisco (2020) Of Ethical Frameworks and Neuroethics in Big Neuroscience Projects: A View from the HBP, AJOB Neuroscience, 11:3, 167-175, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2020.1778116
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