Brussels, 24 Jan 2006
The Meeting of Minds project made its report to the European Parliament on 23 January. This unique project brought together 126 people speaking eight different languages from nine different countries in Europe. The report they produced looks at advances in neuroscience, and how the authors believe policy should regulate them.
The report's 37 recommendations, from what is believed to be the largest ever public science consultation, are strong on egalitarianism, freedom, education and research. Concerns are raised about the way certain technologies could be used to restrict the freedom of individuals. For example, the group decided to suggest prohibiting the use of brain imaging by police forces, which the authors believed are developing so quickly that individual privacy could be eroded. They also suggested that developments in neuroscience should be a priority for the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
Dutch MEP Dorette Corbey had the opportunity to observe the process at close quarters: 'The method is fairly useful. There is often a wide disparity between the opinions of politicians and the public. Involving citizens in policy-making is important.' She went on to suggest that the EU's research budget could be used to develop the technique further.
Neuroscientist Pierre Magistretti from Lausanne University was surprised by the depth of the recommendations: 'I welcome the opportunity to start a dialogue with the public. I am also very happy that basic brain research on the normal brain was included in the recommendations, and I am impressed that the delegates recognised this, as there is still a great deal to learn at a basic level.'
The decision to start the project sprang from significant leaps forward in neuroscience, which have raised novel moral issues. For example, drugs have been developed which could eliminate depression or hyperactivity, or even boost intelligence. It may also be possible to screen young children for their future intelligence, or likelihood of developing brain disorders. Such developments raise questions about normalcy and personality that are not easily resolved.
The Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation led the project, which took in partners from each participating country and funding from the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Gerrit Rauws is from the King Baudouin foundation. 'The number of people were not a problem. I would not be afraid to organise something even for 5,000 Dutch-speaking Belgians, but the language is really the limiting factor,' he said. To overcome this, plenary sessions involved headphones and 48 translators working in much the same way as the European parliament operates, albeit on a smaller scale.
The project has had a significant impact on those who took part, with many delegates passionate about their experiences. Dorette Corbey believes similar techniques could be used to explore issues such as new and controversial technologies, biotechnology, inequalities, climate change and energy, with results relevant to decision makers.
The 126 members - 14 people each from Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom - were taken on an intense and convoluted journey involving several series of meetings, culminating in the final plenary discussion on 20 January which formed the basis of the report.