The hazards of neuroX in k-12…

Popular neuroscience myths are now considered a risk to k-12 education in the UK, story here. Money quote:

“Teachers have a very enthusiastic attitude towards the brain, but there’s no neuroscience in teacher training at the moment and that makes teachers a little bit vulnerable to the very skilled approaches of entrepreneurs in selling products that are supposedly brain-based but actually are not very scientific in their basis and have not been properly evaluated in the classroom,” warned Dr Paul Howard-Jones, a leading expert on the role of neuroscience in educational practice and policy at the University of Bristol.

How to Balance Science With Compliance?

It’s a fact that the compliance burden (often in the form of unfunded mandates) continues to increase on U.S. scientists and those who support the scientific enterprise here. This increased burden is, to some extent, of our own making as their have been several high profile missteps by U.S. scientists and science institutions which to say the least, has been embarrassing.  But the burden has also been rising inexorably because of the increasing awareness of the taxpayers’ right to have oversight over how taxpayer dollars are put to work for science progress. The end result of this burden is that U.S. scientists have less time at the bench, less time at the bed-side and increasingly are looking at attractive offers from overseas.

What can we do to balance these two often conflicting demands?

It seems to me one thing is to make sure we educate the mid-level compliance officers who are assigned the unenviable job of watching over the practicing scientists to a common mutually agreed upon level–so that there is some degree of certainty of what will be actually be required. This is especially true between different institutions. The notion of one institution, one grant is somewhat quaint. Increasingly, a successful approach, requires a multi-disciplinary team assembled across multiple institutions.

The second, is to educate our trainees that performing compliance requirements is part and parcel of the ethical and responsible conduct of science. All too often, there is a cultural gestalt, passed down by those of us in faculty positions, that all of this is just so much “noise” and that often the best response is to simply ignore a compliance request (in the hopes that it just goes away). Obviously, this is wrong and, more dangerously, puts institutions at risk.

The third, is to work with elected officials and policy decision-makers towards a workable middle-road,  such that there is an understanding that what might be appropriate oversight for the likes of a defense contractor operating in theater, is very different from the oversight required for a typical bench-top scientist PI at an American academic institution. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.

In short, compliance has become a tripping hazard of American-style science. It’s important to begin a larger societal conversation about this issue before the tripping hazard turns into a brain drain.

Tripping Hazards In Neuroethics: An Opinion

No doubt many readers are familiar with debates about the role of neuroscience in seeking to enhance (or augment) cognition, and possible policy implications, recently featured in Nature. Diverse contributions to science policy discussion help highlight important considerations for policy makers, including potential “tripping hazards” along the path to feasible policy, as illustrated in the recent commentary from Greely et al (2008). By “tripping hazards,” we mean papered-over or simply overlooked value fault-lines in policy formation that are likely to erupt in problems of feasibility or public acceptance. The authors’ recommendations about the use of cognitive enhancing drugs in healthy persons include concerns about safety, coercion, and fairness (meanwhile dismissing others as lacking substance). Their discussion of safety relies upon selectively stretching the idea of effectiveness and purpose for medication, while calling for safety standards to be held the same as for medicines treating illnesses. The “evidence-based evaluation” for which they call would thus be stretched over the values they’ve selected for inclusion and exclusion, and would be more likely to set up a “stretched line tripping hazard” for policy making than it would be to resolve controversy. The “thin ice tripping hazard,” on the other hand, emerges from their discussions of coercion and fairness, where the recommendations cannot support the weight of the problem. One sign of thin ice ahead is contradiction among recommendations, partially acknowledged but not here addressed, that we protect freedom by discouraging even indirect coercion to take enhancement drugs such as in schools, and protect fairness by providing them to all test-takers in a competitive examination. We commend the authors for contributing to the ongoing public debate but note that much remains to be done.

Jim Olds and Lee L. Zwanziger

Lee works at the FDA and therefore notes that the findings and conclusions in this letter have not been formally disseminated by the Food and Drug Administration and should not be construed to represent any Agency determination or policy.)

Greely H, Sahakian B, Harris J, Kessler RC, Gazzaniga M, Campbell P, Farah MJ.”Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” Nature. 2008 Dec 11;456(7223):702-5.