Chapter VII: SfN at the 25-Year Mark
It is easy to forget how much the neuroscience world changed during SfN’s first quarter-century, from 1969 to 1994, and to lose sight of the role that SfN played in helping to forge this new world. Even the fact that we can now speak of “neuroscience” as a unified field having a history owes much, as we have seen, to the efforts of SfN, its leadership, and its rapidly expanding membership during these formative years. By any measure, these short 25 years witnessed a major epochal shift in the nature of brain sciences. The radical changes of this quarter-century included an unprecedented growth in the science itself, coupled with the meteoric growth of a new scientific discipline with newly created neuroscience institutes, graduate programs, and departments, and, arguably most important, with the creation of a new cultural sensibility of what it means to be human, one that dissolved the Freudian-hued understanding of the mind and replaced it with a sharper neurobiological lens. These changes depended upon a community of brain scientists in the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to understanding how the mind emerges from the brain and convinced that such an effort required a fundamental reordering of scientific practices, institutions, and affiliations.
In 1962, Francis O. Schmitt coined the word “neuroscience” when he established the Neurosciences Research Program at MIT.
What is Neuroscience?
His vision of this new neologism was a discipline that could answer the fundamental question of how the brain gave rise to the mind. Of course, philosophers have pondered this question for millennia. In the more recent past, 19th-century German psychiatrists argued for the unity of mind and brain in the understanding of psychiatric disease. In his 1847 psychiatric textbook, Principles of Medical Psychology, Ernst von Feuchtersleben wrote: “Mental disease must therefore be deduced, neither from the mind nor the body, but from the relation of the each to the other.”20 Wilhelm Griesinger, the most famous of the 19th-century German materialist psychiatrists, wrote in 1868: “It is only from a neuropathological standpoint that one can try again to make sense of the symptomatology of the insane.”21 Over the following century, researchers made repeated efforts to understand the biological basis of insanity as well as normal mental states, though with little or no success.
Prior to the 1950s, scientists had lacked the intellectual and material tools to link brain and mind compellingly and rigorously. However, major scientific breakthroughs during the postwar era dramatically altered what was possible. Most notably, James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, combined with an unprecedented number of major neurobiological discoveries (ranging from Hodgkin and Huxley’s discovery of the action potential to understanding of the chemical nature of synaptic transmission) and new technologies (such as the electron microscope), transformed questions about the ways in which mind and brain interconnect into scientifically tractable problems. In 1963, a year after he first coined the term “neuroscience,” Schmitt wrote: “It now seems possible to achieve…revolutionary advances in understanding the human mind…By making full use of [the approaches of physiology and behavioral sciences] and by coupling them with the conceptual and technical strengths of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology, great advances are foreseeable.”22 In contrast to earlier claims, Schmitt’s prediction that understanding the biology of mind was just over the horizon was significantly more plausible given a decade or so of dizzyingly rapid advances in biology. Presciently, Schmitt and the founders of SfN realized the critical importance of creating a fundamentally new infrastructures for training, professionalization, and funding if this new interdisciplinary effort were to succeed on such a grand scale.
Nearly 50 years later, in the 2010s, neuroscientists continued to grapple with understanding how the unity of the mind emerges from the complex, interwoven biology of genes, proteins, neurons, and circuits. Nevertheless, these early pioneers succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in fashioning a new discipline, held together not by a set of common methods or theories but by the common drive toward understanding how the brain and nervous system worked. SfN founders and early leaders made this possible by emphasizing a kind of intellectual democracy and egalitarianism that self-consciously enforced inclusiveness regardless of a researcher’s disciplinary background, favored organism, or methodological approach. All were welcome in the melting pot of neuroscience, a metaphor that aptly underscores the particularly postwar American stamp that shaped SfN.
Indisputably, the conditions for such a perfect storm were already swirling about the biological sciences at the end of the 1960s. But, as we saw, it took the active energy and foresight of brain scientists, such as Schmitt, Ralph Gerard, and Vernon Mountcastle to shape these forces into what would become the single largest biomedical research discipline on the globe. From the beginning, SfN was the engine of this growth. Figure 31 underscores this point. In its first decade, the Society grew to nearly 5,000 members. Over the next 15 years, the Society had grown nearly fivefold. Exceeding 23,000 members by 1994, SfN had become one of the largest scientific societies in the world. By 2014, SfN had grown to nearly 40,000 members, dramatically eclipsing the other more established biological research societies. For example, the American Physiological Society, founded in 1887, now counts about 10,500 members. Breaking off from the American Physiological Society in 1906, the American Society of Biological Chemists (renamed the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1987 as a concession to restive molecular biologists), has a slightly larger membership of 12,000. The American Society for Microbiology is the nearest to SfN in size, at over 39,000.
The growth in neuroscience PhDs tells a similar story. In 1968, an estimated 238 doctoral dissertations were awarded in neuroscience related fields. Less than a decade later, in 1976, U.S. biological science departments graduated 521 PhDs in neuroscience.23
By the early 1990s, American and Canadian institutions were awarding about 1,000 PhDs per year in neuroscience related fields.24 SfN also played an important role in the creation of neuroscience departments and interdepartmental neuroscience programs that offered PhDs specifically in neuroscience. In 1978, there were 29 interdepartmental neuroscience programs and, by 1986, this number had increased to 47.25 The growth of these programs led to the creation of the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (ANDP) in 1981 to help develop curricular standards and track their development. In 2009, reflecting its long-standing role in neuroscience graduate education, SfN merged with the ANDP and created the Committee on Neuroscience Departments and Programs (CNDP), “charged with recommending and managing programs, activities, and initiatives that advance education and research training in academic neuroscience.”26
This explosive growth of the field would not have been possible were it not for the rapid expansion of federal funding, in which, SfN leadership played an especially critical role. Of course, neuroscience was not unique as federal funding for all biomedical research grew at an unprecedented rate following World War II. As we noted earlier, in the postwar years, NIH became the single largest source of biomedical science funding not only in the United States but also globally. While the rise in federal funding for neuroscience mirrored this larger context, SfN leaders helped to convince Congress of the importance of directing funds toward neuroscience. While the 1990s Decade of the Brain may not have led to the wished-for scientific or funding breakthroughs, it did underline the increasing power of SfN leadership to garner national attention and helped lay the groundwork for President Barack Obama’s Brain Research Through Advancing Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) budget (see Figure 32) illustrates the federal commitment to neuroscience. Though the NINDS budget represents only a fraction of federal neuroscience expenditures, it illustrates the growing importance and consolidation of the field, especially from the mid-1970s onward. One would be hard pressed to imagine these gains without the advocacy of SfN and its Governmental and Public Affairs Committee.
The first 25 years of SfN was largely an American story, though, from the beginning, SfN leadership envisioned a global society that spoke for all of neuroscience, not just for the parochial interests of neuroscientists in a single country. Given the U.S. dominance of science throughout much of the latter half of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that North American institutions, laboratories and scientists drove the development of neuroscience. For example, between 1999 and 2003, the US accounted for 26 percent of the global output of scientific articles. This figure roughly reflects the US share of global research and development expenditures. In 1996, the US share was nearly 40 percent. Over the last decade and a half, the US share has declined. In 2011, the US accounted for 30 percent of global expenditures. Accompanying this, the proportion of US publications to the global total between 2004 and 2008 declined to 21 percent. SfN membership has reflected these shifts. In 2001, international members comprised 31percent of the total. Over the following decade, international membership growth consistently outpaced that of North America, and by 2012, the proportion of international members had grown to 39 percent.
In the 2012 edition of Principles of Neuroscience, Eric Kandel and his co-authors Thomas Jessell, Steven Siegelbaum, and A. J. Hudspeth reflect on the major changes within neuroscience since the publication of the textbook’s first edition in 1981. Echoing Schmitt, they see the ultimate task of neuroscience is to “understand how the flow of electrical signals…gives rise to mind.” The 1981 edition could only consider addressing the major questions of neuroscience with the methods of cellular biology. The 2000 edition had caught up with the seismic changes in neuroscience brought about by the molecular biological revolution. Arguably, molecular biological explanations have provided a new intellectual “super glue” to hold the disparate field of neuroscience together. While few neuroscientists have been molecular biologists, molecular biology offered a powerful intellectual resource for investigating and understanding the linkages from gene expression to complex human behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.
By the 2010s, new motifs had begun to animate the Principles of Neuroscience. According to the authors: “Although the cellular and molecular biological approaches emphasized in the previous editions will certainly continue to yield important information, knowledge of the function of assemblies of neurons in defined circuits must be attained to arrive at a comprehensive cognitive neuroscience.”27 The increasing emphasis on circuits also has been accompanied by the growth of larger and larger data sets of genomic, proteomic, and multi-electrode recordings to name a few. Slightly more than 50 years after Schmitt believed neuroscience was on the verge of “revolutionary” breakthroughs, the shift toward circuits and systems has given rise to new promises of fundamental discoveries. The final report of the BRAIN Advisory Committee to the NIH director, released in June 2014, reads: “Over recent years, neuroscience has advanced to the level that we can envision a comprehensive understanding of the brain in action, spanning molecules, cells, circuits, systems, and behavior.” As enthusiasm builds for this shift toward larger systems and network biology, and a growing reliance on complex methods of analysis of observational data sets, the discipline of neuroscience will face new challenges. How SfN responds to these challenges will shape, not only the future of the discipline, but also the potential of neuroscientists to fulfill, at least partially, some long-overdue promises.
From the moment of its founding, SfN’s leaders believed that scientific truth flourished best within a democratic meritocracy and egalitarian milieu. They consciously worked to make these values a core part of the Society, which accounts in large part for the Society’s ability to forge unity in the face of enormous diversity of methods and interests. A number of challenges could put this founding spirit to the test. For example, will the shift toward systems neuroscience preclude other, equally productive, avenues of investigation?
Ironically, the phenomenal success of American biomedical science since World War II poses another threat to the research community in general and the neuroscience research community in particular. The entire American research enterprise has been driven by the continual uninterrupted expansion of research dollars. However, since 2003, NIH funding has declined by an estimated 25 percent in constant dollars; fundamental structural problems have come to the fore as the number of researchers has expanded in the face of a contracting pool of research dollars. The contraction of fully supported tenure-track and tenured faculty positions has further accentuated an already competitive and increasingly insecure research environment.28 Similar to the growing chasm between rich and poor in American society, biomedical science in the U.S. faces a similar problem in which fewer and fewer scientists control the vast amount of resources. The ways in which the Society will address these trends will have significant consequences for the future of neuroscience.
Since the early 1800s, each generation of brain scientists has hoped to unlock the mysteries of human consciousness and to cure psychiatric disease. The same promises prodded Congress to open federal coffers during the past 50 years. Recall Dominick Purpura’s 1990 prediction that if Congress provided neuroscientists adequate funding: “Humankind will be emancipated from the dread of disability and the stigma of dehumanization that attends dissolution of the human spirit in dementia.” Nearly a quarter-century later, the BRAIN Advisory Committee made similar claims that neuroscience was perched on the verge of revolutionary advance: “We are at a unique moment in the history of neuroscience—a moment when technological innovation has created possibilities for discoveries that could, cumulatively, lead to a revolution in our understanding of the brain.”29 Comparing the current moment in neuroscience history to other revolutions in the history of science, the Advisory Committee promises even more than simply a revolution in understanding:
“Like other great leaps in the history of science—the development of atomic and nuclear physics, the unraveling of the genetic code—this one will change human society forever. Through deepened knowledge of how our brains actually work, we will understand ourselves differently, treat disease more incisively, educate our children more effectively, practice law and governance with greater insight, and develop more understanding of others whose brains have been molded in different circumstances.”
SfN’s founding president, Ed Perl, just before he died in 2014 at the age of 87, and the Society’s first elected president, Vernon Mountcastle, who turned 96 in that year, could have felt enormously proud of the organization that they helped birth. Rooted in a non-dogmatic, though rigorously mechanistic, view of neuroscience, SfN has played a major role in assuring that federal policy makers budgeted for the basic research that has proved productive in understanding our most precious organ and has clearly articulated to the public why brain science mattered. Finally, and just as importantly, SfN made an intellectual home for a new species of scientist, the neuroscientist. SfN’s strengths flowed from promoting an intellectually democratic view of neuroscience in which facts and rigorous experimentation ultimately won out over any particular fashion, method or discipline. As the world becomes more complex, especially if funding priorities of the federal government continue their current trajectory, SfN’s role will become even more important if we ultimately hope to better understand, in Mountcastle’s words, “what makes man human.”
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.
- Ernst von Feuchterleben, quoted in M. Dominic Beer, “Psychosis: From Mental Disorder to Disease Concept.” History of Psychiatry 6, 177-200 (1995), p. 179.
- Ibid, p. 168.
- Francis O. Schmitt, quoted in Joelle M. Abi-Rached and Nikolas Rose. "The Birth of the Neuromolecular Gaze." History of the Human Sciences 23:1 (2010): 11-36, p. 23.
- Louise H. Marshall, "Maturation and Current Status of Neuroscience,” n. 69.
- Michael J. Zigmond and Linda P Spear. "Neuroscience Training in the USA and Canada,” n. 95.
- David H. Cohen, "Coming of Age in Neuroscience." Trends in Neuroscience (1986): 450-452.
- Edward M. Stricker, "2009 Survey of Neuroscience Graduate, Postdoctoral, & Undergraduate Programs." http://www.sfn.org/~/media/SfN/Documents/Survey Reports/2009 Survey Report FINAL/2009 Survey Report FINAL.ashx. Accessed August 31, 2014.
- Eric R. Kandel, James H. Schwartz, Thomas M. Jessell, Steven A. Siegelbaum and A.J. Hudspeth. Principles of Neural Science, Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2012.
- Bruce Alberts, Mark W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus. "Rescuing US Biomedical Research From Its Systemic Flaws." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111:16, April 22, 2014, p. 5773-5777.
- Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Working Group. Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Interim Report. http://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/09162013-Interim Report_Final Composite.pdf. Accessed November 11, 2014.