Philip Rubin: Exploring the White House Neuroscience Initiative
Philip Rubin is the principal assistant director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where he is leading the White House Neuroscience Initiative. He is a senior advisor in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at NSF. He is on leave as CEO from Haskins Laboratories, where he continues to serve as a senior scientist.
SfN: What are the goals of the neuroscience initiative at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and how do you hope to achieve them?
The White House Neuroscience Initiative is a cross-agency effort coordinated by OSTP. The goal of this initiative is to discover significant, transformative opportunities across agencies and between the federal government and the private sector to advance the impact of federal investments in neuroscience to improve health, learning, and other outcomes of national importance. It asks, through coordinated action, where can the field of neuroscience move in the next one, three, five, or ten years? In what areas can shared data, tools, infrastructure, and knowledge spur advances, and how can progress in those areas be supported? The coordinating body of the initiative, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience (IWGN), has been chartered. The IWGN will include members from across the federal government, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, NSF, NASA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Office of Management and Budget, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and OSTP will represent the Executive Office of the President.
The first meeting of the IWGN is scheduled for September 2012.* The working group will identify key research areas where communication and collaboration across federal agencies can foster advances that address national needs. The group is expected to define, for some of these identified research areas, concrete actions the federal government can take to accelerate neuroscience research and development progress. The White House initiative will not instruct agencies on what activities should be undertaken and is not intended to provide centralized oversight. Rather, it will focus on advancing the basic and transformative research needed to accelerate progress in promising areas of neuroscience, a field that ranges, as described in the titles of two National Academies publications, from "molecules to minds" and from "neurons to neighborhoods." This is a considerable challenge that will require focus, cooperation, and hard work. A concrete step that could have a significant impact on the field with relatively modest input is support for the development of an open infrastructure for preserving and sharing neuroscience and related behavioral data, along with the development of sophisticated new tools for analysis, visualization, and modeling.
SfN: Some scientists would say that there is an increasing focus on translational science at a time when much more needs to be understood about the basic mechanisms of brain function. What is OSTP's approach to balancing the need for basic and applied research?
Neuroscience often addresses profound and difficult challenges: restoring sight to the blind, providing feeling and movement to those who are paralyzed or have lost limbs, confronting developmental disorders and the ravages of neurodegenerative disease and aging, and understanding how we come to perceive and move through a complex, constantly changing world. These are pressing challenges, but progress cannot be made without a strong foundation of basic research that engages multiple disciplines, including biology, behavioral and cognitive science, computer science, education, engineering, medicine, nanoscience, neurology, physics, and other areas. The approach of OSTP is to identify how science and technology can help accelerate progress in these areas, particularly through interagency and public-private partnerships and access to shared resources. This approach focuses on the underlying basic science, with an eye toward accelerating translation to the clinical arena and other applications. We also are exploring new and emerging technologies and the fundamental science that underlies them.
SfN: You've had extensive experience both in government and running a lab associated with an academic institution. How has your experience inside and outside of government informed your approach to OSTP's efforts?
I have had a very diverse career, both as a scientist and as an administrator. My research spans many disciplines, combining computational, engineering, linguistic, physiological, and psychological approaches to study embodied cognition, most particularly the biological bases of speech and language. The positions I have held are equally diverse. I have been a researcher doing work funded mostly by NIH, a professor, a science administrator at NSF, CEO of a research institution, chair of a science museum, chair or member of various NSTC and National Research Council committees considering a wide variety of science and policy matters, and now the principal assistant director at OSTP. This diverse background provides me with a broad and practical perspective on the scientific, policy, political, and practical issues that — it turns out — are considered on a daily basis at OSTP. Further, I have personally confronted many of the difficulties that those in the research community are facing today, including the struggle for funding, regulatory considerations, the complexities of transdisciplinary science, and the importance of training and education. Having been on both the receiving and giving ends of federal funding agencies also gives me important experience with academic, institutional, and agency realities. All of this has increased my sensitivity to disciplinary needs and interdisciplinary opportunities that are essential for progress in neuroscience and related areas. That mix is turning out to be a great fit in OSTP, whose role, in large part, is to help coordinate the various missions of a wide range of departments and agencies that have similar goals but very different perspectives, administrative structures, and priorities. Particularly exciting for me has been participating in emerging scientific areas and confronting the challenges that this entails. My current position at OSTP, a White House office that has this wonderful capacity to convene diverse players for the common good, affords me unprecedented opportunities to promote effective partnerships, not only among federal entities, but also among non-governmental institutions and professional associations that share a vision for a better and healthier world built on solid scientific research.
SfN: What role can scientific societies such as SfN play in helping OSTP coordinate neuroscience efforts across federal agencies?
Scientific societies such as SfN can play a number of key roles in helping the neuroscience efforts of OSTP. We are very pleased that SfN has been providing us with an overview of the current state of thinking on key, tractable issues in the area of neuroscience. We thank the leadership and management of the society for their enthusiasm and hard work. I believe that one of the most important things that we can do as scientists is communicate with a minimum of jargon why our work is important and how it affects the lives of our citizens both now and in the future. SfN has been doing this very effectively for some time. However, the responsibility for science communication extends to Society members. Each of us, as scientists and as members of SfN, can assist by letting a variety of stakeholders know what we are doing and how it is important individually and collectively. This is particularly important at a local level. Another way SfN can help is by communicating, and possibly partnering with, other professional societies. There is strength in numbers and in a unified vision and voice.
*At the time of writing, the group was projected to create an interim report in February 2013 and planned have produce a white paper on actions the U.S. government can take to progress research and development in neuroscience by June 2013.