When the news came out in April 2019 that scientists had restored neurological functions in the brains of dead pigs, I was fascinated and worried. While this innovative work could lead to better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries, it has also opened up a mysterious gray area between the living and the dead.
Scientists are struggling with the ethical issues posed by the dirty 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 and 25/05/19, p. 6). But information about scientific advances usually flows from scientists to journalists and then to the public; there are few opportunities for the public to talk to scientists or express concern about the implications of research before science happens. Could we help make those conversations happen? We decided to do an experiment to find out.
This issue includes the first step of our experiment. Last fall we interviewed Science News readers asking them what they thought about neurotechnology, including brain implants and other devices that already have the ability to hear and change how our brain works. Of three concerns: autonomy, equity, and privacy, privacy was the biggest concern among respondents. Sanders used that information to focus his reports on the cover of this issue. "Asking readers what they thought directly was a great way to have perspective and find out what interests them," he told me, "which is something we're trying to do all the time."
Readers did not slow down. “I have no desire / desire to be a zombie or a clone,” one wrote. Others have observed 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 audience’s perspective,” Sanders said. "They just stayed out in a lot of these conversations."
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We also ask readers to share their thoughts on genetics and race, including bias in the genomic databases used for medical research and genetic privacy issues. Senior writer Tina Hesman Saey will report on that experiment next month.
And we look forward to continuing this work. Please let us know what you think by writing to us at email@example.com. "I really see this as the starting point; I'd like to do more," Sanders said.
This project was made possible with the support of the Kavli Foundation, which gave us the opportunity to step back a little from the daily news coverage and see if we can help more people be part of the conversations – and ideally the decisions – about the impact of science. in society, our bodies and our minds.
This issue also includes the second topic of 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 inhabitants of the universe that would not seem possible before that Einstein would change our view of the cosmos.