Each year, communities around the country highlight the importance of the brain and brain research during Brain Awareness Week (BAW), which falls March 11-17. With more than 3,600 partners in 82 countries, the public outreach activities have a broad reach around the globe. “Partners organize art competitions, create videos, or put on plays…this year there is even an opera,” said Kathleen Roina, senior project manager of BAW at the Dana Alliance. “It’s amazing to see just how creative and unique some of the events are.” Roina said participants are free to contribute to the events in whatever ways they choose.

“All of these things are spontaneously happening as a result of seeds planted years ago,” said Bruce McEwen, SfN past president and Alfred E. Mirsky Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University. “There were people out there who really had great ideas, and once they found a vehicle for this they picked it up and made it their own. This is probably one of the most rewarding things I have been involved with as a scientist.” SfN members around the globe now participate in BAW through local chapters, universities, and community groups — and they encourage colleagues to do the same. Further outreach through the Public Education and Communication Committee ensures support for BAW programs in the field.

Getting the Public Involved

McEwen remembers he learned more than two decades ago about a faculty member in the biochemistry department at the University of California, San Francisco, who created a program to bring school teachers and students into laboratories and real world scientists into the city’s elementary school classrooms to enhance the teaching of science. McEwen was inspired by the program and the vision of its creator, Bruce Alberts, who later served as president of the National Academy of Sciences and is now editor-in-chief of Science. Alberts set out to instill in students a lifelong love of science by bringing it to life — introducing students to real people, who did real and fascinating work, rather than letting them read about science in the uninspired pages of their textbooks.

The concept of making science real struck a chord that resonated with McEwen, who was then dean of Graduate Studies at Rockefeller University. McEwen proceeded to develop a science outreach program at the university using Alberts’ model.

A number of years later, as president of SfN, McEwen determined to bring his passion for science education to an even broader audience. He knew that the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a program of the Dana Foundation, together with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, was running a series of public lectures about the work of Salk’s scientists. The goal was, like his, to engage the public about scientific research. 

Dana Alliance Partnership

"Our mission is to increase public understanding about the brain and brain research,” said Roina. “Our goal in founding the campaign in 1996 was to bring together diverse groups with different interests from academia, government, and advocacy organizations and unite them with a common theme that brain research is the hope for treatments, prevention, and possibly cures for brain diseases and disorders."

McEwen approached the Dana Alliance with the idea of expanding their work to include SfN’s members worldwide, creating a grassroots advocacy and neuroscience education campaign that would engage SfN chapters, individual neuroscientists, and potentially anyone.

“I think the brain is at the center of virtually everything,” said McEwen. “People are really desperate for knowledge, and there is a big divide between what we scientists know and talk about and how we reach out to the public and policymakers so they can make informed decisions. It sort of sounds like neuroscience megalomania, but the brain really is the heart of all of it.”

SfN’s partnership with the Dana Alliance on Brain Awareness Week came at a critical time, as concern about continued funding across all fields of scientific research was growing. Neuroscientists expressed the desire to form better connections with disease advocacy groups and improve awareness about brain research among legislators and the general public. SfN envisioned Brain Awareness Week outreach as a way to encourage its chapters to become involved in their local communities.

To McEwen, Brain Awareness Week was an idea whose time had come. In the initial years, individuals who were passionate about promoting brain awareness took up the cause using the campaign as a way to boost programs that already existed. Later, as SfN began developing its Web presence and formed the Public Information and Outreach department, the program grew exponentially. 

Under the leadership of the Dana Alliance, BAW partnerships now exist not only with SfN, but with thousands of other organizations and individuals around the world, including schools, government agencies, universities, and medical/research organizations. SfN’s early partnership with the Dana Alliance has grown stronger, as BAW has become an integral component of Society activities. 

Online BAW Resources

“The internet and social media tools of today really fuel grassroots outreach and advocacy efforts like Brain Awareness Week,” said Roina. “Brain Awareness week now has more than 3,500 Facebook fans and that number continues to grow. For a campaign that’s 18 years old, you might expect the momentum to fade, but it’s much easier now to spread the word and keep the campaign going strong.”

SfN has expanded its outreach, including through the new SfN.org and BrainFacts.org, both of which provide resources on brain awareness for the public and educators to use throughout the year. A new brain awareness video contest encourages the public and students to submit short educational videos about the brain. Winners receive cash prizes and a trip to SfN’s annual meeting. The Society also engages the public on BAW through the BrainFacts.org Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Visit the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives for additional information and ideas for public outreach, along with downloadable materials for BAW events and background on how to partner for BAW.