When the news broke in April 2019 that scientists had restored neurological functions in the brains of dead pigs, I was fascinated — and troubled. Though this groundbreaking work could lead to better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries, it also opened an eerie gray zone between the living and the dead.
Scientists are wrestling with the ethical questions posed by the pig brain experiment and other advances in brain science, as neuroscience writer Laura Sanders pointed out in her coverage of that breakthrough (SN: 5/11/19 & 5/25/19, p. 6). But information on scientific advances typically flows from scientists to journalists and then out to the public — there’s little opportunity for the public to talk with scientists or voice concern about the implications of research before the science happens. Could we help those conversations happen? We decided to run an experiment to find out.
This issue includes the first step in our experiment. Last fall we surveyed Science News readers, asking what they thought about neurotechnology, including brain implants and other devices that already have the ability to listen in and change how our brains work. Of three concerns — autonomy, fairness and privacy — privacy was the biggest worry among respondents. Sanders used that information to focus her reporting for this issue’s cover story. “Asking readers what they thought directly was a great way to get perspective and find out what they’re interested in,” she told me, “which is something we’re trying to do all the time.”
Readers didn’t hold back. “I have no wish/desire to be a zombie or a clone,” one wrote. Others noted how giving scientists (and perhaps corporations and politicians) access to our brains could blur our sense of self. “It was so satisfying and important to get the public’s perspective,” Sanders said. “They’re just left out in so many of these conversations.”
We also asked readers to share their thoughts about genetics and race, including bias in genomic databases used for medical research and issues of genetic privacy. Senior writer Tina Hesman Saey will report on that experiment next month.
And we’re eager to continue this work. Please let us know what you think by writing us at [email protected]. “I really do see this as the starting point; I would love to do more,” Sanders said.
This project was made possible with support from the Kavli Foundation, which gave us the chance to step back from daily news coverage a bit and see if we could help more people become part of the conversations — and, ideally, decisions — about science’s impact on society, our bodies and our minds.
This issue also features the second theme in our Century of Science project. Special projects editor Elizabeth Quill explores the implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which was considered shocking in the early 1900s. Since then, scientists have discovered black holes and other exotic denizens of the universe that wouldn’t have seemed possible before Einstein changed our view of the cosmos.