Shaping public policy in neuroethics

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One of the objectives of neuroethics is to bring thoughtful discourse to bear on public policy.  How does this happen?  The traditional means – the one that academics are comfortable with – is to write a paper and publish it in an academic journal.  If the topic is sufficiently interesting, it draws attention from the mainstream media and initiates wider discussion.  One example would be the paper on cognitive enhancement authored by Hank Greely and colleagues and published in Nature late last year; the position that they took – offering a series of recommendations which would lead to the responsible introduction of cognitive enhancers – was controversial, and the paper was highlighted in an article in the New York Times (where it received 145 comments and rose to the top of the list of most emailed articles for several days).  While one might hope and expect that policy makers would read the ‘paper of record’ with regularity, there is no real mechanism to translate such insights into policy.

In a thoughtful article in Cell, science writer Amy Maxmen points out that one of the most effective ways to affect policy in the United States is to comment on proposals that appear in the Federal Register.  The paper serves as a call to arms for comments on current legislation regarding stem cells, but is really more of a general admonishment to the scientific community to get involved.  Neuroethicists should take note.

Of course, the real difficulty is that the system requires the user to work a bit to get the most updated information.  But imagine this scenario: a group of dedicated individuals takes it upon themselves to regularly scan the relevant databases (ideally, in more countries than just the US) and when a proposal that deals with an issue in neuroethics is published, they alert scientists that an opportunity to comment exists.  In fact, this is precisely what advocacy groups do all the time, and the political establishment is quite sensitive to the public’s input.  Even more compelling (one would hope) would be expert input from scientists whose perspectives are informed by facts. 

Look for just such a system to emerge from the National Core for Neuroethics in the not too distant future.

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One thought on “Shaping public policy in neuroethics

  1. Peter points out two important considerations to ensure that policy effectively protects what a community values and creates disincentives for activities that are deemed as having negative consequences.

    The first, is well-informed, fact based knowledge about the particular problem under consideration. Peter’s scheme (borrowed from Amy Maxmen) to ensure that experts are more active in the dialogue by alerting scholars to opportunities to comment on policy would go a long way towards bridging existing gaps between academia and public policy.

    The second consideration is active stakeholder (i.e. the general public) engagement. In my opinion, policy is a way of operationalizing social norms. Peter points out that ‘the political establishment is quite sensitive to the public’s input’ and ensuring that policy-makers have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of the public’s opinion is extremely important. Much of our work at the Core focuses on understanding these views in the area of brain sciences.

    It is crucial to recognize that creating public policy is an iterative process. Experts are continually gathering more information about a particular issue, social norms and values evolve and the characteristics of the topic under discussion may change. All this means that policy makers, experts, advocacy groups, stakeholders and the public at large, should be in continuous dialogue. This requires a lot of legwork by a lot of ‘dedicated individuals’. Web-based fora (such as blogs) could be just the platform for this sort of conversation.

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