Chapter XIV: SfN At 50 Years: Focus on the Future
The second 25 years of SfN’s history was characterized by rapid technological change in the field of neuroscience, professionalization of governance, and an active embrace of the Society’s global identity and perspective, all in the service of championing neuroscience and of providing all members with year-round value, regardless of their professional stage or geographical location. As former President Eric Nestler (2016-17) reflected in 2018 on his long engagement with the Society, he commented “It’s really a career building, laboratory building, scientific enterprise building affair, and it means the world to so many of us who have been members for forty years.”1 The significance of SfN for the scientific community is clear. In Nick Spitzer’s (BrainFacts.org Editor in Chief, 2011-13) assessment, “If we do a thought experiment and we take the Society for Neuroscience out of the equation, let's imagine it didn't exist, I don't think the field of neuroscience would be where it is today.”2 Former SfN President Fred Gage (2001-02) shared Spitzer’s enthusiasm for the Society, and saw SfN’s continued success as an impetus for reflection and reevaluation.
The Society for Neuroscience is a success story when you look at it objectively now. A question for the Society for Neuroscience is do we accept who we are right now and sort of stay the same or try to stay the same or try to maintain the same level of effectiveness that we have now or do we change in some way to meet the changes that are happening in science and society. I'm not sure what that is but it is time to, and I'm sure the society needs to think what it wants to be in the next 50 years, what do you want to achieve? 3
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of SfN as well as the 50th Annual Meeting in 2020, a number of SfN leaders and longtime staff members shared their perspectives on the successes of the past and described their visions of the future of the Society and the role SfN can play in meeting the ongoing challenges of 21st century science.
After its meteoric rise in the first decade of the 2000s, SfN membership dropped after 2011, and appeared to reach a plateau around 37,000, still 48% above its level in 1995, but showing a downward trend. Possible reasons were concerns about funding support in the US and several European countries and young scientists’ perceptions of the organization as one among many venues for annual presentations, rather than a career-based home. SfN leadership’s emphasis on providing year-round value for members from all countries, in all career paths and at all career stages will be essential to maintain a membership to fuel, in human energy as well as financial resources, its ability to function as the voice of neuroscience.4
An Ever-Expanding Field of Science
Neuroscience has always been an “umbrella” for a wide range of sub-disciplines, from neuroinformatics to genetics to clinical neurology to systems neuroscience.5 Brian MacVicar (Global Membership Committee Chair, 2014-17) saw maintaining a “cohesive force” as one of the primary roles for SfN as the discipline becomes more diverse intellectually, technologically, and geographically.6 Past President Huda Akil (2002-3) cautioned future SfN leaders to remain aware that since neuroscience “sits at a fulcrum of the range of knowledge from the most deductionist like math and physics all the way to the most humanist, social scientists, humanities, music, etc.” it is simultaneously “relevant to almost all types of knowledge,” and vulnerable to “dilution.”7
Several leaders saw the emergence of artificial intelligence and computational techniques as particular challenges and opportunities for the field. William Martin (Committee on Diversity in Neuroscience, 2006-8) asked, “So, will there be different kinds of constituencies within SfN that are focused on computational approaches to neuroscience, or digital approaches to neuroscience in a way that we haven’t really thought about, and how will they be incorporated into the community? How will we maintain the large tent that has made SfN so successful?”8 As the boundary between computer science and neuroscience blurs, it will be vitally important that qualified neuroscientists not only understand how artificial intelligence works, but also participate in the public conversations about the ethics of using AI. 9 The Society has the flexibility and resources to accommodate these new approaches. Past President Steven Hyman (2014-5) was confident that SfN’s Annual Meeting and publications will continue to “play a critical role in making sure the neuroscience net doesn't fly apart, doesn't succumb to centrifugal forces but that people continue to talk to each other, interact with each other and in that way will make the best use of our opportunities.”10
Artificial intelligence is not the only technological change SfN must confront. As educational and research methods become more and more digitally based, the Society will need to nimbly incorporate those changes into its programs in order to continue to meet the needs of students and researchers.11 Elisabeth Von Bockstaele (Neuroscience Training Committee Chair 2016-18) approvingly described the Society’s 2019 initiative to develop a “digital learning platform that that really is going to be the future.” She noted that “the Society has definitely been a leader in this area because it's been promoting incredibly high-quality programming related to scientific rigor and scientific training.”12 Technology is also providing new and innovative ways to communicate with the public, as showcased by the new 3D interactive brain on BrainFacts.org. By simultaneously embracing online tools and maintaining high levels of scientific integrity, SfN would continue to be “the flag bearer of standards for neuroscience, both at the training level and at the knowledge level.”13
Promoting and Protecting Science on the Global Stage
A number of SfN leaders expressed concern about public attitudes towards science in the late 2010s.14 SfN’s successful advocacy programs were ample proof that neuroscience is a “bipartisan issue,”15 but a larger climate of skepticism and rejection of scientific evidence has put increasing pressure on the Society to strengthen what former President Carla Shatz (1994-5) termed its “credibility in the context of what neuroscience can do for health and society.”16 In addition to successfully partnering with sister societies around the world to advocate for science funding, SfN must continue to defend scientific freedom by supporting scientists in countries whose governments have difficulty “accepting that scientific findings are free of bias and relevant.”17 For example, the 2019 Science Knows No Borders program helped scientists who were unable to attend the Annual Meeting because of American visa restrictions.
In order to combat anti-science attitudes and preserve public funding for research, public education initiatives such as the Brain Awareness Campaign and BrainFacts.org will continue to be a high priority. In addition to managing public expectations of what scientific research can provide, SfN will be in a prime position to help chapters and individual members demonstrate the increasing relevance of neuroscience to society. In 2018, former President Dennis Choi (1999-2000) observed that as neuroscience has matured, there are “increasing expectations for what neuroscience will do for society, not just in the medical arena, but also in providing meaningful guidance in other arenas, ranging from law to ethics to even art and architecture.”18 Cara Altimus (Trainee Advisory Committee Chair 2016-19) argued that neuroscientists are in a position to provide solutions to a number of social and political problems, given that neuroscience
sits in this really unique place, in terms of how the world works because the brain controls human behavior, and so much about why things are the way they are when we think about violence, we think about substance use, we think about the development of children and education, those are huge social topics that all have links back to the brain and neuroscience that almost everyone here is feeding into those discussions without realizing it, without necessarily working on it.19
SfN faced multiple challenges as it entered its second 50 years, but could draw on a strong volunteer and professional leadership and a well-earned position of authority and trust.
- Interview with Eric Nestler, November 3, 2018.
- Interview with Nick Spitzer November 5, 2018.
- Interview with Fred Gage December 20, 2018.
- Interview with Marty Saggese, September 18, 2019.
- Interview with Lisa Monteggia November 6, 2018.
- Interview with Brian MacVicar November 5, 2018. Reha Erzumulu made a similar point in his November 4, 2018 interview as well.
- Interview with Huda Akil November 6, 2018.
- Interview with William Martin, November 5, 2018.
- Interview with Karl Herrup, December 17, 2018; Interview with Gordon Shepherd November 3, 2018; Interview with Steven Hyman November 4, 2018.
- Interview with Steven Hyman, November 4, 2018.
- James McNamara, John Morrison, Larry Swanson, Melissa Garcia, and Cori Spencer all touched on this topic in their November 2018 and January 2019 interviews.
- Interview with Elisabeth Von Bockstaele, November 7, 2018.
- Interview with Ramesh Raghupathi, November 4, 2018.
- Alexxai Kravitz, Carol Barnes, Irwin Levitan, Eric Chudler, Michael Goldberg, and Ramesh Raghupathi all expressed concern in their November 2018 interviews.
- Interview with John Morrison November 5, 2018; Interview with Eric Nestler, November 3, 2018.
- Interview with Carla Shatz, November 5 2018.
- Interview with Marina Picciotto, November 4, 2018.
- Interview with Dennis Choi, November 5, 2018.
- Interview with Cara Altimus, November 7, 2018.