Recurring Themes from the Planning Grant

Over the course of this planning grant's five quick months the demonstration team has often been too busy to stop and write down our observations. So we asked the project's writer-in-residence Maura Kelly to write up some of the recurring themes that she keeps hearing. Everyone on the team has their own reflections and observations from their experience of the project, so this could never be a complete list. But when we showed this to team members they all nodded along to the points Maura has captured here.


1) There is enormous opportunity in the Neuroscience & Society space at MIT. The planning grant seemed to continually turn up new and exciting people and initiatives to work with. The planning grant's approach (centering mutually beneficial exchange between neuroscientists, ELSI scholars, and public engagement) was universally met with enthusiasm. Matching the wealth of existing resources, there was also an overall sense that this work fulfills a distinct need at an institution like MIT.

2) The pace at which AI and other innovations in neuroscience is moving creates a feeling of urgency. Innovation is occurring so rapidly right now that it doesn’t allow for the time necessary to substantively deal with the implications of these innovations. We saw this with the “Make-a-Fake” mini-course we did. Five months passed between when we started planning for it and the last class—and in that time, a number of new discoveries and revelations related to AI and deep fakes came out that we couldn’t accommodate in the course. 

3) Many neuroscientists are reluctant to engage in a meaningful way with the public, or to take in the opinions, concerns, or feedback of people who aren’t specialists in the field. This has been true of scientists historically. Changing this perspective within the scientific community will take time and effort, but an MIT Museum Dana Center would be in a good position to lead in this regard.  MIT Museum Manager Ben Wiehe acknowledges the publish-or-perish strain that scientists are under may make them reluctant to go beyond their labs. Nonetheless, he says, "They have this enormous pressure to produce world-class research, but how can you be a world-class researcher if you are not engaged in the wider world?"


4) MIT doesn’t have a central program or center for scholarship about the ethical, legal, and societal Implications of research. Both MIT Museum Manager Ben Wiehe and MIT McGovern Institute Scientific Advisor Jill Crittenden—leader of the McGovern Institute Tours and an important member of the Dana Center planning grant team—believe an MIT Museum Dana Center would have an advantage in creating such a center from scratch. The museum would not inherit a formulaic approach to considering these implications—which Wiehe and Crittenden think would work to their benefit in a field where everything is moving so fast. Moreover, the lack of a central program like this at MIT means there is a high demand for one. At the moment, the institution doesn’t have much of a plan to fill the void—and therefore a potential Dana Center could both answer the need and get a lot of buy-in from experts throughout the university. MIT Museum Director John Durant adds, "The only way we will make headway on the subject of neuroscience and society is by being deeply, deeply interdisciplinary, and bringing together groups that aren’t usually in dialogue with each other—and the museum is in a great position to do that."

5) Public participation changes the conversation, as we saw a number of times during the planning grant stage.

  • The team in charge of the McGovern Tours earned, among other things, that working with the sixth grade teachers was an important element. Ahead of the tours, the MIT team provided the teachers with a package that helped them put together class lessons about relevant concepts and vocabulary. That enabled the students to engage more deeply during the tours. The team also learned that the students wanted to hear about the individual experiences of the research trainees—for instance, during a demonstration of MIT’s MRI machine, the sixth graders had a lot of questions about how the trainees use fMRI data. The team also discovered that the sixth-graders were most engaged during the hands-on portions of the tour—when they could use the prosthetic claw in the dry lab, and touch animal brains during the web lab, for instance.

  • After the McGovern Tours, one of the neuroscientists who took part debriefed with MIT Museum Manager Ben Wiehe. The neuroscientist said, “Research happens in areas where scientists see a good opportunity to learn something new. That’s how research gets decided. But when we do that, if we’re studying a disease, that often means we point the way towards treatments that aren’t necessarily affordable or accessible. And maybe the research should be guided more by affordability and accessibility instead of what we can learn that’s new.”

  • The Cross-Modal Perception Workshop inspired Jessie Cronan, Senior Director of The CVI Center at the Perkins School for the Blind, and her team to replicate the experience for the kids in their CVI Club. She and Seth Riskin, the MIT Museum Studio manager, who led the event, are talking about how to do that.

  • The Cross-Modal Perception Workshop was also epiphanic for the people working in The Sinha Lab, who are trying to better understand how vision works. A number of them study how information is processed at the onset of vision, by looking at the experiences of children involved in Project Prakash who, after being blind since birth, have their sight restored with a cataract surgery. Through their work, they try to understand how people with newly restored vision integrate (or fail to integrate) their visual perception of objects with what they have previously been able to perceive about those objects—through touch, for instance. The researchers were energized and excited by their conversations with the people from the Perkins School during the activity day; a big part of the event involved participants feeling different patterns of raised dots on plates specially made for the event. As one of the researchers, Anchal Sharma, a Fulbright Visiting Ph.D. student, said, “Right now, there are no established tactile models that help us understand shape perception, and we draw from visual models of learning. Thus, it becomes imperative to investigate if there is any similarity between these two modalities.” As part of her Ph.D., Anchal considers how to better convey three-dimensionality through two-dimensional tactile stimuli. The Perkins School event presented insights and interactions that were highly relevant for her. “I asked one of the people who was congenitally blind if she visualized anything when she felt the raised dots or when she explores shapes in general. The question confused her. It seems that visualization wasn’t intuitive in her process of shape identification as it is for the sighted.” For Sharma, that suggested something significant: “This is a critical area, where we need to dig in deeper and investigate further. Events like these that bring together people at different stages of blindness provide a very rich platform to understand these concepts further.” 

6) Integrating an ELSI component changes the conversation too. This may have been especially true for Crittenden. “We’ve given younger students tours of the McGovern Institute before,” she says. “But in the past, we did typical tours, pedagogical ones, with no involvement from ELSI scholars or public engagement specialists. These tours were different. We worked with ethicist Stephanie Bird, a neuroscientist affiliated with MIT, who gave a presentation to the McGovern neuroscientists about ethical considerations. We worked with the teacher of the sixth grade students we hosted during these tours, to help prepare him to teach them about ethics. He said that was really exciting for him, as he’d never included an ethical component in his classroom before. The kids also seemed really engaged by the ethical questions when they were here.” 

7) Integrating public engagement specialists changes the conversation too. Among the neuroscientists involved, Sarah Schwettman expressed this most cogently. “The human connection or public engagement element of events like these is not something people at MIT think about a lot,” she says. “But [MIT Museum Manager] Ben [Wiehe] pushes on it in a very useful way, always putting the genuine human sharing, connect-making, and mutual enrichment first.” She says that Wiehe’s influence gave new shape to the Perkins School activity, which she helped to lead. “The original plan was to do it in The Exchange”--a lecture space in the museum. “That felt stagnant. We transformed that into a workshop gathered around small tables where everyone was on equal footing. That made the difference. Doing it in The Exchange would’ve been so strange—how could we have learned anything from the Perkins people like that? Architecturally, it would have been set up like, Us and Them, and, ‘Now is the  discussion time, now is the time when we hear from you,’ a separate little moment at the end—rather than all of us being at the table together.”

Beyond that, however, she says she felt and continues to feel Wiehe’s influence in her work, even at moments that have nothing to do with the Dana Center planning grant. She explains: “Throughout the planning process, Ben would always say, ‘What will you learn from the public? Is this going to be a lecture where the people who attend are going to be expected to download information from MIT, or is it a conversation where they are learning from us, and we are learning from them?’ Now, I always hear his voice in my head, saying that.” She describes how that voice has influenced a research project she’s doing with a student collaborator. “I’ve ended up learning more from this freshman at MIT while doing this than, I think, I’ve taught him. But it’s really been a super even-at-the-table collaboration, so to speak. And I can’t help but feel that’s all very connected [to the Dana Center planning stage and Ben’s influence]. It’s grown into a way of thinking and working … and I appreciate that a lot.”

8) Many of the neuroscientists who participated, even most of them, as well as plenty of ELSI scholars in the field, think that the technology that they develop or study is neutral at worst—and that it’s not their role to address the ethical and societal questions that arise from their work. This was demonstrated strikingly by Stanford University’s Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Criminology, Law & Society, during a lecture she gave for the Augmented Brains symposium. Her talk was about how easy it is to implant false memories in people without using any kind of technology other than misleading questions. Towards the end of her time at the podium, she announced that she would talk about ethics for a moment. “Without any devices, just talking to people, we can get people to have false memories that affect their subsequent behavior,” she said. “We now need to be asking—and this isn’t for me as a cognitive psychologist to answer, but simply for the rest of us to think about—when should we use this kind of mind technology? Or should we think about banning its use?” One of the scholars who attended the lecture and spoke to the museum about it afterwards that this was a cop-out. 

9) Having a postdoc in neuroscience as a full-time fellow at a potential Dana Center may cause friction. The pre-existing demands on the postdoc’s time could be too great, so the MIT Museum will have to be flexible in aranging the involvement of neuroscience postdocs as fellows.

10) Exhibitions will be an important part of any Dana Center. Wiehe thought that perhaps a Dana Center for Neuroscience and Society could be, even should be, less exhibit-based and more activity-based, so that the public could really engage in a hands-on way with the innovations coming out of the neuroscientific community. But through discussions with his colleagues, he sees that exhibits will also play an important role at a potential center. 

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