What does a healthy relationship between neuroscience and society look like? How do we set the conditions for that relationship to flourish? A set of teams at MIT is working on these questions with a five-month planning grant from the Dana Foundation.
This project is a response to the increasingly urgent need for a scientific community that is sensitive toward the wider implications of its work, for a community of scholars whose work is rooted in the deeper foundations of social concerns, and for a science communication community that is skilled in engaging constructively with those concerns.
The project is also a direct response to a Request for Proposals issued in 2022 by the Dana Foundation. The MIT Museum was awarded a planning grant through that RFP, which provides for five months of preparation toward a full proposal for a fully formed "Center for Neuroscience & Society."
Between October 2022 and March 2023 the MIT Museum, along with departments and labs across MIT, tested a potential vision for a new Center for Neuroscience & Society. The goal of this five-month project was to learn more about what happens when the distinct fields of neuroscience, ELSI scholarship, and public engagement are brought together to work side-by-side. The overarching goal of the planning grant project was to explore conditions that might eventually lead to a mature and constructive relationship between neuroscience & society. To foster this relationship our vision is for a Center that works to address the gap between three domains:
Two core principles are guiding our work and vision.
1.) We are taking a broad view.
The first is the recognition that the interplay between neuroscience and society is so vast and so rapidly changing that it requires continual critical examination. Neither "neuroscience" nor "society" are domains that neatly reduce down into a set of bounded content areas or shared terminology. Technical distinctions that provide narrow definitions of neuroscience are not useful in exchanges with the general public, so we are taking a broad view of what is meant by "neuroscience." Similarly, instances of social impact and influence ought to emerge from open-ended public engagement, without being artificially limited to a few areas of prescribed mutual influence. So we are also open to broad and diverse interpretations of what serves as a substantial connection between neuroscience and society.
2.) We are Including all three domains at every possible point.
A second core principle is that a Center for Neuroscience & Society ought to bring together its domains of interest so that they work together hand-in-hand and with mutual respect. We envision a Center that directly connects established and training neuroscientists with established and training practitioners of public engagement and the arts, and does so with frameworks, observation, and critique provided by ELSI scholars, along with the full participation of the public. Whenever possible, the Center we envision will directly involve representatives from these areas in every aspect of its planning, activity, and outputs.
Four teams worked on the planning grant phase:
Steering Committee: Twelve leading faculty from across MIT provided oversight and strategic direction during our planning period. Committee members represented a balance from the domains of neuroscience research, ELSI scholarship, and public engagement.
Demonstration Team: More than a dozen students, post-docs, and staff explored what really happens when neuroscience researchers, ELSI scholars, and the public get together. In some cases, this team chose existing activities already taking place during the planning period, and assigned a representative from each domain to work with those activities. In others, team members pursued creative new programming ideas.
Documentation Team: It is one thing for participants to learn from the planning grant, but it is another to share that learning with each other. A small group of staff and contracted professionals processed the conversations and reflections generated by the planning grant's activity.
Management Team: A small group of MIT Museum staff were responsible for managing, coordinating, and administrating planning activities.
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