Message from the President: The Importance of Global Advocacy and Communication to Ensure the Long-Term Strength of Neuroscience
Neuroscientists worldwide are advancing the field in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Public interest and support for our work is on the rise. We are encouraged by President Obama’s recently announced new federal initiative, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (B.R.A.I.N.), which calls for new seed money investments at NIH and other federal agencies. We are also pleased that policymakers around the globe recognize brain science as one of the great scientific opportunities of our time.
Still, we obviously live in challenging economic times. As the President pointed out in announcing the new brain research initiative, across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, are “threatening to set us back before we even get started.” Now, more than ever, changes to the funding environment in one country — like the sequester in the United States — reverberate around the world.
With the field of neuroscience on the world stage, it is critical that we, as scientists, engage with policymakers and the public about the value of continued, sustainable investments in neuroscience research.
Growing Public Interest — A Critical Step
Building public awareness and appreciation for brain science is the first step in gaining support for scientific research. When we interact personally with the public, as we do during Brain Awareness Week (BAW), we remind audiences of the critical discoveries made possible by brain research that have already improved health and wellbeing for countless individuals around the world. This year, The Dana Foundation reports that more than 800 BAW events and activities were held in more than 60 countries from Ethiopia to Argentina and New Zealand to Pakistan. Neuroscience is fortunate to have the The Dana Foundation’s impressive and effective work on BAW since they established it in 1996. Sf N is honored to partner with them each year and to provide complementary resources through BrainFacts.org, which reached an astonishing 1 million page views this month, half from outside the United States, since launching less than a year ago. The site continues to play a growing role in raising the visibility of brain science to the public, policymakers, and educators.
Increasing Support — The Role of Advocacy
I can say with confidence that scientific progress coupled with effective advocacy and communication about neuroscience developments over the last several decades is critical to today’s exciting opportunities.
As scientists, each one of us is a vital advocate. Advocacy may not be something we are familiar and comfortable with yet, and it is not technically in our job descriptions, but we must all make time for it in our busy schedules, a fact I have become acutely aware of while serving as SfN president. It only takes a few minutes to make a phone call, send an email, or write a letter to a legislator. In every country, we should be consistent about communicating the fundamental value of our work, including the points that:
• Scientific research is a highly effective investment, not a luxury or an expense.
• Making this investment is critical to advance science, improve health, create new technologies, and strengthen economies worldwide.
• Investments in science must be ongoing and sustained, not a one-time budget item.
Here in the United States, I recently joined more than 30 SfN colleagues for a Capitol Hill visit to discuss these issues with members of Congress. I was particularly excited to participate in this event with young SfN members and PhD candidates who explained their lab work and research developments. These young people represent the next generation of neuroscientists, the future of the field, and they are starting their roles as advocates early. They presented an optimistic view of the opportunities that lie ahead in the field of neuroscience, but they also pointed out in stark terms the bleak future they face if funding cuts continue.
During Hill Day, we informed legislators and their staffs that budget cuts in the United States are already being felt. More than $1.5 billion in across-the-board cuts to the NIH budget means 1,600 fewer research grants in fiscal year 2013, and NSF cuts of $350 million result in 1,000 fewer grants. We explained that neuroscience research is key to advancing our understanding of many issues that affect dramatically rising healthcare costs, including treatment of patients in the debilitating stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Dramatic swings in the funding cycle have a stifling, irreversible impact on progress.
Global Coordination is Essential
Scientific discovery is a global endeavor, as is advocacy. Funding gaps in one part of the world inevitably impact us all, and advocacy strategies can be adapted from one nation to the next. Thus, by sharing information across borders, we can help scientists develop concrete strategies for use across nations and in national capitals.
SfN is delighted that the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) is leading an effort to encourage national societies and their members to engage with policymakers and advocate about the importance of neuroscience research around the globe. The program is expanded and adapted from one developed by the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS)-SfN joint advocacy program, begun in 2011. Through that effort, 17 national societies in Europe have developed country-specific programs dedicated to advocating for neuroscience, and these programs take into account the specific governmental and cultural norms of each country.
Around the globe, researchers are engaging in coalition activities along with clinicians and patient advocates to promote continued investment in the field. In the United States, the American Brain Coalition plays a critical role in bringing together these constituencies. The European Brain Council plays a similar role in advocating at the European Union. Brain Canada has had enormous success in promoting public and private investment in brain-related research. Such efforts are going to be essential for the future of the global research enterprise and need to be expanded to other parts of the world.
The Future of Neuroscience Depends on Us
With the current global spotlight on neuroscience, we have a terrific opportunity to seize this moment to expand and strengthen a field that is recognized as solving perhaps the greatest scientific challenge of our time — how the brain works and how to prevent and treat the more than 1,000 diseases attacking it. Together we can lead our field in creating opportunities and pursuing discoveries. At the same time we are improving lives through bettering mental health, creating jobs, and strengthening economies.
At a time when spending cuts are heralded as the solution for economic solvency, neuroscience has been given a rare and unique opportunity. We should celebrate this renewed interest in the brain, but at the same time we cannot be complacent about the future of our field. Sustained funding around the globe is required for us to realize the full potential of recent initiatives, which requires sustained advocacy. I hope you will join me to ensure that policymakers and the public understand the excitement and promise of our rapidly advancing field. Securing long-term research investments ensures that society can reap the full benefits of our research efforts.