Q&A: NSF Leaders Discuss Opportunities in Brain Science Programs
John C. Wingfield is the assistant director for the Directorate of Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). He serves as the NSF representative and ex-officio on the BRAIN Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Diane Witt is the cluster leader for the Programs in Neural Systems, Division of Integrative Organismal Systems in the Directorate for Biological Sciences.
Why do you think it is such an exciting time for scientists to focus on progress in brain science?
When scientists do ultimately figure out how the brain works, this accomplishment will probably be considered the greatest scientific achievement in all of human history. Many disciplines are making precedent-setting interdisciplinary collaborations that may hold the key to understanding the brain.
Neuroscience is being advanced by major new discoveries in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering. Also, expanding concepts in cognitive science are generating exciting new research lines. At the same time, advances in computational neuroscience are providing us with new tools for handling the types of big data sets generated by neuroscience research and for integrating data across time and scales.
All of these fields are expanding at a rapid pace and generating unprecedented tools for brain research. Two examples of interdisciplinary technologies that have created entirely new research areas are optogenetics and CLARITY, which were invented with funding from NSF and others.
NSF has been actively expanding and better integrating its neuroscience programs for the last several years. Tell us more about those efforts.
NSF has long supported innovative neuroscience research through all of our Directorates. Recently, a series of events increased public interest in neuroscience, beginning with a National Academies report in 2010 that identified “understanding the brain” as one of the five grand challenges in life science today.
One year later, Congress — with strong support from Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) — directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish an Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience to help guide future investments in neuroscience research. Additionally, at NSF, the Directorates for Biological Sciences, Computer and Information Science, Engineering, and Social, Behavioral and Economics established a Cognitive Science/Neuroscience initiative in 2012/2013 with a specific request in the fiscal year 2014 budget. In March 2013, NSF issued a Dear Colleague Letter calling for cross-cutting proposals that could accelerate new research across disciplines.
Today, NSF is one of several federal agencies playing a key role in the president’s BRAIN Initiative, and we are directing a portion of our investments towards proposals that offer the potential to transform neuroscience and cognitive science. Our activities will build on NSF’s ongoing support of research in cognitive science/neuroscience. The first NSF BRAIN activity was a workshop sponsored by our Biological Sciences and Mathematics and Physical Sciences division to scientists together to identify basic principles of brain structure and function. Another NSF workshop was held to provide a forum for the discussion of challenges in mapping and engineering the brain.
NSF continues to invite participation from scientific leaders through opportunities such as the Biological Sciences sponsored workshop at HHMI’s Janelia Farm to be held in October.
What unique role does NSF seek to play in the BRAIN Initiative?
The BRAIN Initiative is a joint effort by federal agencies, specifically the NSF, the NIH, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and private partners, to support and coordinate research into how the human brain works. The role of NSF will be to lead a multidisciplinary effort by scientists and engineers to advance the research and neurotechnological development, and educate a competitive workforce needed for the BRAIN Initiative to succeed. NSF will contribute to foundational knowledge, invest in neurotechnology for high-resolution measurements, advance computational models, establish frameworks, and explore avenues for data storage, management, and analysis.
NSF’s scientific review of funding proposals ensures that many voices are heard and that only the best projects make it to the funding stage. In addition, basic research funded by NSF fuels technological innovations and is critical to fostering the vitality of the U.S. science and technology enterprise and the growth of highly-skilled jobs.
How can SfN and its members support NSF’s efforts to communicate with the public and policymakers about the benefits of basic science, and the importance of interdisciplinary science?
There are many ways for SfN and NSF to work together to advance neuroscience, including many communications opportunities. Throughout the year, NSF works to incorporate outreach efforts into the “broader impacts” components of NSF awards, and encourages awardees to work with their public information officers to reach out to the media. Researchers funded through NSF are encouraged to let us know when studies are being published — we’ve set up a special email (firstname.lastname@example.org) so please let us know!
We also encourage SfN members to learn more about all of NSF’s programs. The annual meeting is a terrific place to start. NSF is hosting a booth at Neuroscience 2013, and we invite attendees to come and meet program directors involved in neuroscience activities. We will also provide an informational session on funding opportunities, and will report on the NSF role in the BRAIN Initiative.
Are there other NSF programs, initiatives or events in which SfN members should get more involved?
One Directorate we have not mentioned is Education and Human Resources (EHR). In the future, we expect more developments in undergraduate and graduate education to train the work force that will move the BRAIN Initiative forward. EHR, the other Directorates and our Office of Legislative and Public Affairs will be highlighting NSF awards, workshops, public announcements, and other ways of communicating the achievements of our principle investigators.
Lastly, NSF is always looking for “rotating” program directors from various institutions to spend time at NSF, playing a vital role in the merit review system, setting standards for neuroscience, and influencing new directions in brain science. Directors retain ties to their institution and then return with a wealth of skills and knowledge on how NSF awards are allocated.