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Introducing the Neuroethics Police Podcast

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Katherine Bassil, the host of the Neuroethics Police podcast. Katherine is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. She has gained interest in neuroethics throughout her studies and has attempted to integrate it in her work where possible. She hopes that one day she’ll be able to bridge the fields of neuroscience and neuroethics and hopefully inspire others to see the importance of such an effort. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineBassil and on Instagram @Katherine.Bassil

“It’s time for the Neuroethics Police to make some arrests” is not a typical sentence you would expect to see “neuroethics” in. The Neuroethics Police? Not a common phrase, either. But I chose to build a podcast around this premise anyway. Why? To invite the curious, the skeptic, and the skeptic-turned-advocate to take part in the discussion of the ethics of neuroscience, a topic I believe does not have the attention it deserves.

My interest and curiosity for neuroethics, particularly the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research, grew overnight after I attended a symposium on Neurolaw. After this symposium, I started thinking beyond the lab bench for the first time. It was shortly thereafter that I began my search for a neuroethics course within my masters’ program in neuroscience to gain some more knowledge on the subject. I was met with disappointment; there was no sign of neuroethics at my university.

Why isn’t there neuroethics training within our neuroscience program? Why aren’t people (neuroscience students & professors, the public, etc.) aware of current neuroethical discussions? Why was I never aware of this -what I believed to be- important field before?

After graduating and moving onto my PhD studies, I was genuinely motivated to make this change, of bringing others’ attention to neuroethics. I was determined to shine a spotlight on neuroethics and to show its importance. I was curious to learn the opinions of neuroscientists in my own department on current ethical discussions related to neuroscience. But I felt that individual discussions, however stimulating they may be, were not enough. I needed something broader, something more global, that could reach even those who had questions but didn’t know where to begin. I had an idea – to start a podcast: The Neuroethics Police.

Why a podcast? I chose this format because I wanted to reach out to as many people as possible, and neuroethically-dense articles are, frankly, not everyone’s cup of tea. Additionally, live conversations are unique and spontaneous, and there are many places a conversation can go which for a pre-planned format like a blog would never see. That’s what I wanted for the audience of the Neuroethics Police, a platform that is accessible on the go, that is spontaneous, real and engaging all at the same time.

At the time I was starting this podcast, I was not sure if my goal to raise awareness on the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research would come across as intended. But I learned a lot of important lessons after hosting just a few episodes.

1) Debate is a necessity

Since the first episode, I have been told that there is a need for more debate, more communication, and more discussion on the implications of neuroscience. Discussion is a necessity between scientists, ethicists, policy makers, government officials, and the public. There are no exceptions. One example reflected by the first guest of the podcast, Prof. Dr. Jos Prickaerts, is the need for guidelines concerning cognitive enhancement research. He particularly points out to how “tempting” certain research could be to some scientists and how the absence of strict guidelines may blur the lines between what is practically possible and what is ethically permissible. We need to get some of those pressing issues out there, to the public – including cognitive enhancement research, implications of neurotechnology, brain implants, to name a few – and not confined within the laboratory or university office walls.

2) Non-scientists have something to say

While preparing the list of potential guests to invite to the podcast, it was clear to me that my list was easily exhausted even when restricting it to neuroscientists and ethicists. But it didn’t feel right to discuss societal implications of neuroscience research in the absence of members of society not immersed in academia. There are many informed decisions that concern society, and we tend to forget the public’s voice in shaping these decisions. So, in the coming episodes, I urge all those interested, particularly non-neuroscientists to reach out and voice their opinion on topics ranging from neurotechnology and cognitive enhancement to biomarkers and other brain-related topics.

3) Ask the right questions

Developing thoughtful, fair, and non-biased questions remains the most challenging part for me in the process of creating an episode. Bias exists everywhere, even in formulating questions. I often found myself unintentionally imposing my opinion within the questions I ask. This has taught me to better identify bias and to more critically contemplate other people’s work.

4) Voice your opinion

“I’m just a PhD student.” That remark used to keep me quiet whenever I felt the urge to give my opinion during a discussion. But that’s not necessarily a reason to keep quiet. The hierarchy in academia often puts students in a position to question whether they should speak up or not and whether their opinions are valuable. Bachelor, Master, or PhD students: we all have something interesting and important to say. In the coming episodes, I will be joining the discussion as well by challenging my guests’ views, and so could you! The exceptional thing about the platform I use to create my episodes is that it allows the audience to interact with me or my guests by calling in during the recording session, asking questions or even commenting by sending a voice message that can be featured on following episodes.

My final message is this: there is a lot that needs to be discussed and the clock is ticking. For example, in the second episode, my guest and I discussed biomarkers for depression and aging and how their use could have potential ethical and societal implications. The implications we discussed include creating unnecessary anxiety in individuals who undergo similar screenings, but also the potentially discriminatory actions insurance companies might take in reaction to the development and application of biomarkers in clinics. The more people we have on board, the faster we can move towards more effective neurotechnologies, ethical neuroscience research, and an innovation-educated public.

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