Chapter VI: A Robust SfN in a Rapidly Changing World
As the Society for Neuroscience completed its first 25 years in 1995 and looked to the dawn of a new millennium, it could claim a growing and diverse membership, a strong volunteer leadership and a record of success in building public recognition and support for the field of neuroscience. Nevertheless, SfN faced major challenges ahead, in coping with its own growth and increasing diversity, in ensuring financial security to develop new programs, in maintaining public and government support for basic research and in keeping up with the rapid pace of technological and social change. As Eve Marder (President 2007-2008) has commented, "SfN as an organization parallels the adult nervous system: It must be both plastic and robust, and this is a never-ending challenge both for the permanent staff and its scientific leadership."1
The 1995-6 membership survey indicated that SfN was in a strong position after 25 years. 75% of the nearly 24,000 members responded, giving a complete picture of the changing demographics of the Society. 30% were female of the respondents, as opposed to 21% in 1982, and a similar proportion were working in countries outside the United States.2 The median age of SfN members was 41, with 50%, the largest group, between 35 and 49. This did "not necessarily reflect an aging in the profession, but may indicate that membership now appeals to scientists in a broader range of disciplines," a claim supported by the broad range of primary research interests those members identified.3 Membership grew slightly after 1995, remaining relatively stable around 28,000 for most of the end of the 1990s.4 The Society had a strong volunteer leadership pipeline, thanks to an active nominating committee that drew from the twenty working committees organized to address the priorities and changing needs of the organization.
Inside and outside the scientific community, neuroscience was flourishing and commanding respect, in large part due to the publicity for the "Decade of the Brain (DOB)." The American Association for the Advancement of Science established a Neuroscience Section in 1994 that quickly grew to one of the largest sections at their annual meeting. SfN’s annual meetings continued to attract a dynamic cross section of researchers, clinicians, and students, and authors and readers consistently regarded The Journal of Neuroscience as a prestigious place to publish. As attention and funding increased because of the Decade of the Brain, undergraduate students began to flock to neuroscience as a major; SfN members established the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) in 1991 as an adjunct organization to help instructors and students take advantage of the resources at the Annual Meeting.5 SfN members brought their expertise and enthusiasm into schools, museums, and television studios to talk about the brain during successful Brain Awareness Week programs, the result of a fruitful partnership with the Dana Alliance. In addition, educational materials such as Brain Facts, Brain Concepts, Brain Waves, and Brain Briefings reinforced the message that SfN was the best source of reliable information about brain research for the public, and particularly for lawmakers.
While they were never complacent about the importance of government advocacy and public education, in the late 1990s, neuroscientists were confident of public support for the Decade of the Brain. A number of technological and theoretical breakthroughs that resulted from the increased funding and focused research of the DOB made neuroscientists more visible than ever.6 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice-President Al and Tipper Gore were recognized in 1998 and 1999 for their leadership in applying neuroscience to education and mental health, and their staunch commitment to healthcare, respectively.7 The Nobel Committee underscored the importance of basic neuroscience research in 2000 when Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, and Eric Kandel (SfN President 1980-81) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system."8
SfN leaders recognized that nonscientists could also offer information and insights that could help to spread the word about brain research and inform members’ work. Dennis Choi, who became SfN President in 1999, made the choice to invite actor and spinal cord injury victim Christopher Reeve to appear at a Presidential Symposium on "Restoring Function after Spinal Cord Injury."9 As Choi enthusiastically reminisced, "Reeve was such a spectacularly articulate person with really, wisdom and appreciation for the breadth of neuroscience and the importance of basic neuroscience…he knew right away that curing spinal cord injury was unlikely to come from a single spinal cord injury experiment, but would have to draw on a very large corpus of basic research, and he advocated for the latter... I thought, what a wonderful spokesperson for what we neuroscientists do––what the SfN does...."
I recall his speech as really quite profound. It was in the evening; he was on stage, spotlight, and it was silent. And then there were these respirator breaths because he had a very high cervical injury, unfortunately, and he couldn’t speak without great difficulty and without drawing on his respirator for air. And he would speak in this respirator-punctuated voice, but it was so steady, so articulate, and everybody was listening and it was really a very important moment, I thought, certainly for me.10
One of the biggest challenges facing the Society was the need to "go digital" rapidly to keep pace with the dramatic rate of technological change in communications, publications, and research practices. SfN overhauled its website in October 1996 to include resources for members and for the general public; and for several years, the print Neuroscience Newsletter included a "Getting Caught on the Web" feature that encouraged members to use the online resources.11 As soon as Council and the Publications Committee agreed to bring The Journal in-house, they had to make decisions about how and when to transition to a digital publication, and thanks to their efforts, The Journal was the second biomedical publication to have full-text articles available online.12 The processes of submitting abstracts, scheduling sessions and printing the Annual Meeting schedule also began transition to digital during this period, as did the Neuroscience Newsletter.
All of these changes required additional resources in terms of money and staffing, and there were occasional hitches as the Society joined the digital age. SfN staff and leadership were ready to adjust nimbly to ensure that the Society would not be behind the curve in the Internet Age. Nevertheless, as the decade and the millennium ended, it was clear that the rapid growth, increased global reach and technological sophistication of the Society had outgrown the small-scale governance and staffing arrangements developed as needed, and often improvised, since 1969. The Society had matured and major changes were coming.
- "Eve Marder" in Thomas D. Albright and Larry R. Squire, eds. History of Neuroscience in Autobiography vol. 10 (2018), 420-455, p. 448.
- "Society for Neuroscience Membership Survey," undated report in SfN Central Office, SfN Archives, p. 2.
- "Membership Survey," p. 2-3.
- Society for Neuroscience, "SfN Membership Growth Graph," Catalyzing Change in Our Environment: FY2007 Annual Report, p. 20.
- Julio J. Ramirez and Larry Normansell, "A Decade of FUN: The First Ten Years of the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience," available at funfaculty.org;
- Murray Goldstein, "The Decade of the Brain: An Agenda for the Nineties," Neurology: From Basics to the Bedside. A Special Issue of Western Journal of Medicine, 164 (1994): 239-241; "Editorial: Celebrating a Decade of Progress" Nature Neuroscience 2 (June 1999): 487; Edward R. Laws "The Decade of the Brain: 1990-2000" Neurosurgery 47 (December 2000): 1257-1260; Sandra Blakeslee, "A Decade of Discovery Yields a Shock About the Brain," The New York Times January 4, 2000; "A Decade After the Decade of the Brain" Cerebrum February 26, 2010,
- "First Lady Honored for Leadership in Neuroscience Education" Neuroscience Newsletter 29 (May/June 1998): 1-2; Hillary Rodham Clinton, "First Lady’s DOB Award Acceptance Remarks" Neuroscience Newsletter 29 (May/June 1998): 16, 20; "Society Event ‘Neuroscience 2000’ Captures Attention of Policymakers, Public and Press; Helps Forge New Alliances" Neuroscience Newsletter 30 (May/June 1999): 1,3, 28, photos p. 4-5. VHS video footage of these events are in the SfN Archive, Neuroscience History Archive, Special Collections for the Sciences, UCLA Biomedical Library. Neuroscience Newsletter was renamed Neuroscience Quarterly in 2003, and will be abbreviated to NN and NQ hereafter.
- "Christopher Reeve Among Annual Meeting Speakers" NN 31 (July/August 2000): 1
- Interview with Dennis Choi, November 5, 2018.
- R. Cliff Young, "Society Web Site Gets Facelift," NN 27 (November/December 1996):1-2.
- Sol Snyder, "What Makes for Prestigious Publishing" NN 27 (November/December 1996):5, 11.