President's Letter

November 30, 2017

Image of Hank Greely

Fellow members of the International Neuroethics Society – greetings from your new president!

At our annual meeting earlier this month, I was honored to become the Society's fourth president, following in the (very large) footsteps of Steve Hyman, Barbara Sahakian, and, most recently, Judy Illes. Along with those three, I was one of the 13 people who met at Asilomar in California in May 2006 to help found the INS. I've been a member of the Society and its Board of Directors ever since, which has given me a front row seat to understand the honor, the challenge, and the sometimes-onerous tasks that come with being the president for the next two years. I do promise: I will try my best to live up to the standards my predecessors set and to do the job.

My current plan is to include short messages from time to time in our regular newsletters but (probably) not to send Presidential letters. This message, however, got so long that I was afraid it would overpower the important parts of the newsletter, so it is coming to you separately.

First, I want announce up front the time and theme of the 2018 Annual Meeting. We will once again meet the Thursday and Friday before the Society for Neuroscience meeting. That means November 1 and 2, 2018, in San Diego, California. Our theme this year will focus on the newest scientific and technical developments and their possible implications. I'm thinking the slogan will be something like "Cutting Edge Science, Cutting Edge Ethics" – but suggestions are welcome. We are making progress on coming up with Program Committee co-chairs and members and hope to announce them before the end of 2017.

But, in addition to that news, it does seem to me that a decent respect to the opinions of mankind (or at least of our members) requires me to say something about my plans for my two-year term, and about myself, on taking office.

I was the Asilomar meeting planner who pushed for that gorgeous, and historically resonant, location. The Society was conceived in beauty, and dedicated to the proposition that it is important to promote scholarship, teaching, and public communication about neuroethics. That proposition is still true and is only increasing in importance. The good news is that the media and public are becoming more aware that neuroscience is raising complex ethical, legal, and social issues. The bad news is that it remains largely ignorant of the fact that those issues are being addressed – or, at least, discussed – and that the INS exists. The week before our annual meeting this year, an article by an almost always excellent science writer talked about a new publication on neuroethics as if nothing had ever been said on these issues – and gave no inkling that the INS existed. And that's a pity.

I have three interlocking goals for my two years as President that I hope will help change that:

  • Increase opportunities in the Society for INS members,
  • Boost the public role of the INS in neuroethics discussions, and
  • Grow the INS membership.

These aren't new ideas; achieving them won't be easy. My predecessors as president and all those who have worked for the INS are smart people; they've seen the same issues and have already plucked any low hanging fruit. But I think the time is right to try to take the next steps and I've got some initial thoughts about ways to proceed. These are preliminary and will have to go through discussion and approval by many INS members, committee members, and directors, but I want to share them now.

First, I want to increase what the INS provides you, our members.

One way to do that is to hold, or to co-sponsor, more regional meetings. The Annual Meeting is always a great event, but it happens only once a year (hence that pesky word "annual") and always many thousands of miles (and 1.6 as many kilometers) from many of our members. I would like to see us substantially involved in quarterly meetings, spread out around the world. Currently, I'm thinking of perhaps three each year in North America, the home to a large majority of our membership, and one elsewhere. We could provide the INS name (and assistance) to a local host, along with some funding and some content, in return for discounts for our members and some dedicated time on the program.

Whether that works out or not (and time, human resources, and funding will be issues), I am committed to holding at least one major INS meeting overseas during my term, with at least a full day of content, probably in Europe, and probably in summer 2019. We cherish our non-North American members and need to give them some nearer opportunities to be part of INS activities.

Another way to give you more stake in the INS is to make more room for new faces, and new blood, in INS committees, task forces, and the Board of Directors. I can already confirm one step in that direction. I plan to step down from the Board of Directors at the end of my presidential term. Our veteran leaders have extremely valuable experience, but new generations have much to contribute and their time must come.

Second, I want to find ways to increase the INS's public presence. Again, this is not new. We have long had an "emerging issues" task force, currently chaired by Jennifer Chandler of the University of Ottawa. But I would like to take more steps to make the INS the "go to" source for information on neuroethics issues.

We will consider a variety of ideas. One I currently like is to give members the opportunity to create a neuroethics online resource, rather like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Members would draft and then curate articles on topics, with INS members encouraged to comment in ways that not only could lead to modification of the main article but promote useful debate among the membership. This is just, at this point, a skeleton of an idea, but I hope that, with the assistance of the Board, committees, task forces, and members, we can find some similar way to play a more important role in public discussion and education. (And, I would note, this would be another good opportunity for members to engage with the Society.)

Third, and perhaps most mundanely – but not least importantly – I want to build our membership. We have always wanted to attract more members, but I am going out on a limb and setting a numerical goal. Our membership floats up and down during the year, peaking around the time of the annual meeting, but is typically around 300. By the end of my term I want us to be over 500. You'll see in today's newsletter a graphic that I intend to have displayed prominently in every newsletter issue, to show our success (or failure) in reaching that goal.

Membership Goal: 310 of 500 members

Growing our membership by two-thirds in two years will not be easy. It will take help from all of you, to bring your colleagues, friends, students, and others into the Society. Personally, I see great opportunities to bring more law and neuroscience people into the Society, particularly as the Law and Neuroscience Project winds down. But I need each of you to pitch in. I welcome your thoughts about various ways we can add members. But note that if each current member brought in just one new member over the next two years, we would blow well past our goal.

Increasing our membership is not just having more beans to count (translation for some of you – based on an American idiom about "bean counters"). More members increase our influence, our stability, and our resources (human and financial). But having more members also importantly contributes to our overall goal: to promote scholarship, teaching, and public communication about neuroethics.

Finally, as to me, I've been a law professor at Stanford since 1985, working on ethical, legal, and social implications of advances in the biosciences, mainly neuroscience, genetics, stem cell research, and assisted reproduction. My formal science education ended with my undergraduate degree in (political) science. My formal biology education ended (and started) in 10th grade. But I have long been in love with biology, and, thanks mainly to the kindness of scientist friends (and largely indiscriminate reading), I believe I've learned a fair amount of it, including neuroscience. (For a lawyer.)

I've worked on neuroethics since 2002 and was fortunate enough to take part in the seminal May 2002 Dana Foundation conference in San Francisco, the best marker for the beginning of the modern era of neuroethics. From about 2007 to 2010 I worked on the Law and Neuroscience Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. More recently I have been a member of the National Academy of Medicine's Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders (the "NeuroForum"); of the National Academies' Committee on Science, Technology, and Law; and of the Multi-Council Working Group of the NIH BRAIN Initiative, whose Neuroethics Division I co-chair. And I currently direct the Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society. Having so many hats brings with it not just the possibilities of confusion and conflicts of interest, but, on the plus side, a better sense for what is going on in many venues with neuroethics. I hope to use these connections for the benefit of the field, including the INS.

I trust this will be the last time we send you my photo (at least by myself), but I thought it might be useful for those of you who don't know me to be able to recognize me at the Annual Meeting or at one of the (I hope) many other meetings where our paths will cross. Of course, I could have just said "Look for the old, pale, wide, and tall guy with white hair, glasses, a mustache, and (usually) a sweater." Anyway, don't hesitate to say hi and to give me an ear (or two) full of your suggestions, complaints, or insights about the INS if you see me. Or feel free, at any time, to email me at hgreely@stanford.edu. I promise to try to get back to you in a reasonable time.

And, throughout, please work with me, the staff, the Board, and everyone else to help make the INS even better as the world's center for research, education, public communication, and discussion of the many addictively fascinating issues of neuroethics!

I hope to see each of the roughly 310 of you before long.

Hank Greely