Embrace and Shape the BRAIN Initiative, From SfN President Larry Swanson
Following a week of extraordinary attention to the field of neuroscience and support for biomedical research, I write to share the SfN Executive Committee’s view about President Obama’s announcement of a U.S. brain research initiative and why we believe it is important for the neuroscience community to both embrace and help shape it through scientific dialogue. I had the privilege of attending the President’s announcement at the White House, and, after listening to his words, I am excited and confident that this and other emerging global funding initiatives can be tremendously positive for our field.
The announcement comes at a critical time in neuroscience. Unparalleled scientific progress and possibility co-exist alongside growing challenges caused by shrinking or flat national government budgets for science research. Precisely because of these realities, the Executive Committee believes the President’s announcement represents a critical moment to both pursue scientific opportunities and make the case that now is the time to increase science investment. Last Tuesday’s White House announcement prioritized an initial investment in pilot tools and technologies. We think this is a reasonable place to start as it acknowledges the long horizons and deep challenges inherent in studying the brain, as well as the advantages of developing revolutionary new methods for discovery. The project also has established a rigorous process for determining investments and future planning, with an exemplary NIH Advisory Committee comprised of distinguished scientists from across our field with a strong emphasis on basic science.
While we should all continue to explore and discuss questions about the scientific direction, it is important that our community be perceived as positive about the incredible opportunity represented in the President’s announcement. If we are perceived as unreasonably negative or critical about initial details, we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started.
At the same time, SfN knows that scientists will be challenged to make progress on even these initial projects — let alone pursue the field’s ongoing vital work — without sustained and growing financial investment in the scientific enterprise. The President articulated the outlines of a possible long-term vision for focusing on brain research, with an emphasis on basic science, and NIH Director Francis Collins has consistently emphasized that the initiative likely requires a project spanning a decade or more and strong NIH-wide funding. His comparisons of the project to the Human Genome Project, while not a perfect scientific analogy, suggests to the public a long-term commitment. To help realize these possibilities, SfN will continue advocating strongly for sustained investments to support neuroscience and the biomedical research enterprise overall, and we will need all of your voices in those efforts for years to come.
SfN encourages healthy debate and rigorous dialogue about the effort’s scientific directions. Testing of assumptions, methodological debate, and constructive competition are central to scientific progress. I urge you to bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues, including the SfN annual meeting in San Diego this fall and The Journal of Neuroscience.
Thanks to your extraordinary scientific achievements, the neuroscience field is capturing the world’s attention, and, here in the United States, rallying a nation to support more focus on scientific discovery. Thank you for your commitment to advancing science and improving health. I look forward to participating with all of you in this ongoing discussion as the initiative takes shape.