UNDER THE MICROSCOPE; When shall we three meet again

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Bush House, the HQ of the BBC World Service, was not the most obvious venue to catch up with two old friends. But there we were, Steven Rose of the Open University, Jeffrey Gray of the Institute of Psychiatry and I, to conduct a discussion, chaired by John Wilson, editor of the BBC World Service Science Unit, on various ways in which neuroscience was impacting on current and future society.

Andrew Luck-Baker the producer, had outlined what he perceived to be the three most challenging areas. First, he asked, will our complex, inner- mental lives ever be truly explicable in terms of brain cells and brain chemistry? Second, to what extent will such a reductionist knowledge of the brain erode the concept of free will and individual responsibility? Third, will a more detailed knowledge of brain processes enable us increasingly to manipulate people's memories and character?

It was hardly remarkable that there was rarely a consensus; in fact I was surprised we agreed on as much as we did. No, the refreshing and uplifting aspect of the whole exercise was how the discussion bowled along without retakes, loss of temper, wisecracks or extreme and intransigent stances. Perhaps it was because we all knew each other well enough that there was no need to jockey for intellectual position, but perhaps most of all it was because we realised that the issues were deep, complex, and desperately important.

We all seemed to go along with the idea that neuroscience could often be bedevilled by a certain arrogance, in that current powerful techniques seduced one into thinking that we knew more than we actually did. Moreover, we decided that "reasons" could be appreciated on a host of levels, from the immediate discharge of an electrical blip lasting a thousandth of a second, to the largely mysterious, more global organisation of the brain, and its dynamic interaction with environmental factors.

Issues such as those under discussion have been of concern since Aldous Huxley raised the spectre of a nation hooked on Soma that included epsilon- ranked individuals forever rele-gated to operating lifts. Now, some might- see this world as truly upon us, so it is surely a good thing to eavesdrop on scientists in discussion with each other and discover that they are far more modest in their ambitions, and abilities, than storytellers would imply. And surely it is as necessary to witness us in conversation with each other, in our natural intellectual habitat, than merely to extract one of us from time to time to serve as the token scientist among a group disparately recruited from all over the chattering classes. It is quite rare that scientists are allowed to hold the floor exclusively and get to grips with different nuances of a subject not merely carved at the most obvious joint by the blunt instrument of an arts-science divide.

Just as important is the case for giving our colleagues the chance to reflect on such issues. So often nowadays scientists are discouraged from broad reflection of ethical and social implications of their work, in the haste to enter the fray of grant applications and the sheer mind-numbing slog of administration and increased teaching loads. The more premium that is put on defending one's narrow range of expertise and petty position in the local institutional pecking order, the less time is left for channelling one's individual talents for the public good. The current narrow-minded track along which many of us are driven could almost make the general public's worst fears of the out-of-touch scientist a reality. We need to have all scientists participating fully in appreciating and querying the ethical and social implications of their work - not just a few who are media friendly and well known to the mandarins of the BBC. Every practising neuroscientist, for example, should have a stance on the issues that we happened to be discussing at Bush House. We all agreed strongly on one point, that there should be more of this type of forum. As we left Jeffrey Gray asked, "What are the chances of this going out nationally?" I wasn't sure whether it was a question or a statement of tired resignation.