Neuroethics Symposium explores bias in academia

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Dec. 4, 2013

"Bias in the Academy: From Neural Networks to Social Networks," will be the focus of Emory's 2013 Neuroethics Symposium, exploring the complex nature of stereotypes and bias in academia through a multi-disciplinary lens.  

With a focus that arises from issues and concerns adapted straight from discussions now taking place at universities across the nation, the symposium is presented by Emory's Neuroscience Graduate Program, Laney Graduate School and the Emory Center for Ethics Neuroethics Program.  

The interdisciplinary symposium, which is free and open to all, will be held Tuesday, Dec. 10 at Emory University School of Medicine, Room 110.  

Speakers will feature national scholars addressing a range of topics, including:  

  • "The Neuroscience of Race Bias" — Liz Phelps, Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, New York University

  • "Gaining Insight from a Biased Brain: Implications for the Stigmatized" — Chad Forbes, Department of Psychology, University of Delaware

  • "Wise Interventions: Engineering Psychology to Raise Achievement" — Greg Walton, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

  • "Emory Speaks: The Challenges of Bias and Stereotyping at Emory" — Deboleena Roy, Departments of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory, responds to the first three presentations; student organizers share outcomes of a pre-symposium seminar series

  • "Are There Solutions to Bias and Stereotyping in the Academy?" — A panel discussion featuring Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory's Center for Ethics, and moderated by Tyrone Forman, sociology professor and director of Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.

Symposium tackles emerging issues

Now in its fourth year, the interdisciplinary symposium has been expanded to also include, for the first time, a pre-symposia seminar series — four seminars held throughout the fall semester that address neurobiological foundations and social psychological perspectives on stereotype and bias.  

Earlier seminars are video-archived and may be viewed, as available, on the Neuroethics Blog.  

Outcomes from the discussion-based pre-symposia series will inform a white paper — created to highlight challenges and develop practical solutions to reducing the influence of bias and stereotypes in academia — that will be presented and discussed at the main symposium.  

"These symposia are largely student-led and highlight emerging issues that fall at the intersection of neuroscience, society and ethics," explains Karen Rommelfanger, director of Emory's Neuroethics Program at the Center for Ethics and assistant professor in the Department of Neurology.  

The theme for this year's symposium was directly inspired by dialogue around issues of negative stereotyping and race and gender bias that have arisen at Emory, as well as universities around the country, she adds.  

"At our planning meetings, we concluded that the major hurdles to formulating and implementing a strategy for mitigating the harmful effects of stereotype and bias are being able to get the community on the same page about what a harmful stereotype is, how our internal biases are formulated, and just how insidious these biases can be, even to ourselves," Rommelfanger explains.  

"With this symposium, we ask: What are the neural bases of formulating stereotypes and biases — given that there are brain-based mechanisms for creating stereotypes and biases — and what means do we have for mitigating the harmful effects of stereotype and bias in society, in this case specifically academia?"  

Bias and biology

Though researchers across disciplines have grappled with these topics, the symposium explores the neuroethical dimensions of such broad-based data, says Jacob Billings, a third-year Emory graduate student in neuroscience who led the first pre-symposium seminar and helped organize the event.  

"We're trying to approach issues of bias and stereotyping from the sciences, looking at it from a biological point of view, as to why and how people generate these perspectives and what we can do with policy decisions at the university to ameliorate them," Billings says.  

"There's a lot of interest in moving these issues forward and building creative solutions, and that's where we come in," he adds. "Having a novel perspective in neuroscience can add another important angle in building a university that is, in fact, universal."  

Rommelfanger says one of the major strengths of this year's symposium is "its attempt to address the multi-faceted nature of stereotype and bias.  

"Neuroethics as a field that lends itself to such discussions, as it is inherently multidisciplinary, bringing together scientists, philosophers, sociologists, legal scholars, policy makers—you name it," she says.  

With an expanded scope, Rommelfanger notes that this year's symposium is made possible, in part, with the support of the Neuroscience Initiative, the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture, Equal Opportunity Programs, and the Rollins School of Public Health.