Should everything be unlimited

by Guest blogger -

How do Germans feel about science and research? How strong is your interest in scientific topics, how strong is your trust in the work of researchers? The answers to these questions can be found in the "Science barometer", An annual survey by the" Science in Dialogue "initiative.

Here in the blog “Zweikommazwei”, researchers from the research center take a position on the findings and theses of the current Science Barometer 2018. In the third part of the series (subscribable as an RSS feed), Prof. Katrin Amunts, medical doctor and director of the “Institute for Neurosciences and medicine ”, position.


Is science really allowed to research anything - without restriction?

Prof. Katrin Amunts, director of the Jülich Institute for Neurosciences and Medicine and deputy. Chair of the German Ethics Council

 “The freedom of science is anchored in the Basic Law. Nevertheless, 43% of those questioned do not believe that science and research can explore everything without restriction. Ms. Amunts, do you agree? "

Yes i agree Academic freedom does not mean absolute freedom; it can also be restricted by other rights and norms, such as the right to self-determination or the dignity of the individual. However, where the limits for research are to be specifically drawn is not always easy to answer in a specific case and sometimes means difficult considerations. In many areas of biological and medical research, such questions are very old, often discussed and implemented in practice as fixed rules, compliance with which is monitored by ethics committees, for example. But of course there are also completely new questions that arise due to the new possibilities of digitization, big data or artificial intelligence or also concern the question of how far one can intervene in the brain or manipulate behavior.

I come into contact with such questions more and more frequently, as a neuroscientist and doctor, as deputy chairwoman of the German Ethics Council and in the European Human Brain Project, which I would like to address in the following as an example.

In the Human Brain Project, the linking of brain research and technology development is systematically pursued at European level in order to realize synergies between the various research areas, medicine and the latest information technologies. This opens up huge opportunities to improve people's lives, but at the same time the risks have to be considered. We have therefore had our own sub-project for ethics, a director for ethical issues and a reporter for ethical issues in each of our sub-projects. Here are some examples of questions we will deal with:

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become an important topic in the Human Brain Project. We use AI methods in neuroscientific work, for example to map the brain or to make predictions about the course of diseases. The interaction of AI and simulation also opens up interesting perspectives, e.g. for the development of new pharmacological substances. On the other hand, we are developing more biologically anchored approaches for artificial intelligence in order to overcome current limitations. The rapid advances in AI processes open up new possibilities, while at the same time warnings are given about the risk of rapid, uncontrolled development.

However, I do not believe that this is why one should not do research in this area. On the contrary, European AI research would then run the risk of falling further behind the leading players in this field, the USA and China. So just dropping out here is not an option. Rather, one will have to try to shape developments responsibly. Education plays a central role in this. In my opinion, Europe could definitely play a pioneering role in norm-setting, ethically-oriented AI research. Among other things, the EU project “SHERPA” has recently started, which is led by the Ethics Director of the Human Brain Project, Prof. Bernd Stahl. So there will be an interesting collaboration here.

Neuroprostheses open up fascinating perspectives. In the Human Brain Project, our partner Pieter Roelfsema in Amsterdam uses basic knowledge for processing visual information to develop a brain prosthesis for the blind. Through direct stimulation of the nerve cells in the primary visual area, this should help those affected to perceive their surroundings again. However, interventions in the brain also open up questions that could affect our human dignity. A few months ago we had a big debate on this in the Ethics Council and Pieter Roelfsema himself also recently assessed the possible consequences of neuroprostheses and brain stimulation techniques in an article in the journal “Trends in Cognitive Sciences”.

Big data methods in the health sector is another field that is discussed in society. In particular, the evaluation of large data sets with sensitive personal information has generally become a topic of our time. A study in which 600,000 Facebook users manipulated emotionally without their knowledge, i.e. were exposed to either particularly positive or negative content in order to then analyze their behavior, was highly controversial. On the other hand, findings from big data analyzes of disease data are important for research, especially in the case of particularly complex diseases of the brain. Here, too, one should neither allow everything nor reject certain types of research across the board. You have to find concrete solutions. That is why we are building a medical informatics platform in the Human Brain Project, accompanied by data security experts, which makes such analyzes possible without violating the data protection rights of patients.

in ethics science barometer 0