Stephanie Bird, co-editor of the journal Science and Engineering Ethics, is a laboratory-trained neuroscientist and an internationally-known speaker whose research now focuses on the ethical, legal and social policy implications of scientific research, especially in the area of neuroscience. Previously, as Special Assistant to the Provost and Vice President for Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she worked on the development of educational programs that address ethical issues in science and engineering, the professional responsibilities of scientists and engineers, and ethical issues in research practice and science more generally. She also taught in her areas of expertise at MIT, including both courses designed to examine various aspects of the responsible conduct of research and those that consider the ethical and social policy implications of science and technology. She’s written extensively about how to responsibly conduct research and on various other aspects of neuroethics. She is a past president of the Association for Women in Science and a member and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as an active member of the Society for Neuroscience. She is also an active member and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where she serves as secretary of Section X—Societal Impacts of Science and Engineering.
Bird served as the ethical consultant for the McGovern Tours. In that capacity, she helped to develop the curriculum used to teach the students in advance of their trip to MIT about some of the ethical questions that come up around BCI’s. She also worked with the students during the tours as they designed their BCI’s.
Q: Tell us a little about your background in neuroscience and ethics.
Stephanie Bird: I chaired the social issues committee of the Society for Neuroscience for a few years. The whole purpose of the committee was to really look at the ELSI issues associated with neuroscience, the ethical and legal issues that arise. But the SFN hasn’t been as proactive as some other professional societies have been, even though the general understanding of how the brain works is limited. And it is so important to be thinking as a society much more carefully about what we know and don’t know, especially for things that have rare or long-term consequences, whether it is self-driving vehicles, medications, or the way that information is presented or misrepresented. We need to be much more pro-active about thinking about the consequences. There tends to be a real emphasis on the positive implications but not so much on the potential negative side effects. We’re seeing that play out right now in the discussion around legalization of psychoactive substances. It’s really problematic.
Q: How so?
Stephanie Bird: Everyone has gotten behind the legalization of pot. But there is a lot we don’t know about the biological effects, and that’s been so unattended to. The conversation is all about taxes and regulations. Here in Massachusetts, the big discussion now is: How do we make it equally fair for everyone to start businesses for pot? Can everyone profit in the same way? But meanwhile, cannabis is a psychoactive drug and like all psychoactive drugs it has complicated effects. It interacts in different ways in different people’s brains. And no one is talking about how we prevent long-term damage from use, or what happens when little kids get into the edible forms. I’ve heard about infants and toddlers getting hold of the edible forms, brownies or things that look like treats. And all of these drugs are psychoactive, they effect the way you think and the way you perceive the environment around you. They effect your response time on the road, too—and while it doesn’t make sense to regulate everything, being blasé about things we have no business being blasé about is a problem.
Q: The goal of the Dana Center project is to develop activities that benefit from the contributions of neuroscientists, ELSI scholars, and public engagement, while providing value to people from all three domains. Did participating in the McGovern tour show you ways that these domains might influence each other? Did you take away unique value from working on an activity where these domains intersect?
Stephanie Bird: The museum’s activities really highlighted the ever-increasing recognition that the research will have impacts on people’s lives in many many ways—in the spheres of public health, education, the legal profession, criminal justice, as well as healthcare impacts on mental health and physical health.
One thing that stood out during the interactions I saw, especially during the field trips to McGovern, is something that I’ve been struck by for the last few decades: There is a lot of enthusiasm for applying research from neuroscience it in a way that seems like a good idea, but may not be. [9:34 - 12]
Q: What are some of the unfortunate ways that emerging neuroscientific research might be applied?
Stephanie Bird: Business might want to use some of what neuroscientists are learning to focus on ways in which, circumstances in which, people might be more susceptible, more manipulable, to advertising. Similarly, there is a lot of discussion about social media and AI; about users being susceptible to disinformation.
Of course we’re seeing that kind of susceptibility already with social media, which was perceived and conceived as a way of increasing communication among people, a way to remove barriers and decrease loneliness, without recognition of the ways that people could communicate in dangerous ways. But something dominant now, among really young people, are influencers on social media. And influencers are like salespeople, persuading you that there is something you want or need, whether you do or not. In the past, [salespeople were salespeople, more straightforwardly, rather than salespeople masquerading as peers, and] salespeople worked with adults. Adults have a better ability to critically evaluate information, since they have so much more experience, than younger people.
Influencers get around people’s ability to think critically. Their audience doesn’t have strong critical skills to evaluate information they’re given. They don’t know what questions to ask. And young people are just formulating their sense of the world and how it works, and exposure to influencers is much more hazardous than people recognize.
Q: What kind of projects would you like to see at an MIT Museum Dana Center for Neuroscience & Society?
Stephanie Bird: One of the things that I think a Dana Center would be good for is good science communication about neuroscience. We saw during COVID the importance of good science communication—what an important role science journalists played in terms of communicating about how we, the public, should behave in response to the epidemic. Journalists also play a role when it comes to neuroscience and how it fits into people’s lives. And a Dana Center at the MIT Museum would be a good place to help find ways to do that effectively. The scientific community can present what they have found to the public in a positive way, while ELSI scholars, including journalists, can bring a fuller understanding of the big picture. Because sometimes my colleagues in neuroscience can be reluctant to acknowledge the downsides. I’ve even heard some of them say, in response to talk about the downsides, “Why are you people so negative?”
Photography by Emma Skakel