Q&A: Robert Finkelstein, Amber Story Discuss Neuroscience Working Group
Robert Finkelstein, PhD, and Amber Story, PhD, are co-chairs of the Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience (IWGN). Finkelstein serves as director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Division of Extramural Research. He is responsible for coordinating NINDS-funded scientific programs and oversees the extramural program’s scientific review, grants management, and administrative services. Story is deputy division director of NSF’s Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division, which supports scientific research on human cognition, language, social behavior, and culture, as well as interactions between human societies and the physical environment.
What is the Interagency Working Group? Who are the members? What are its goals, and what are your roles?
There is wide-ranging interest in and support for neuroscience across the U.S. federal government. In August 2012, the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Science established IWGN to coordinate neuroscience research activities across U.S. federal agencies and departments. The group, which is co-chaired by NSF and NIH, includes nearly 40 representatives from more than 20 agencies, departments, and institutes. The IWGN meets monthly to identify opportunities for facilitating basic and applied neuroscience research, with the ultimate goal of improving health, education, and other outcomes of national importance. As co-chairs, our primary role has been to help this very heterogeneous group identify common goals. We are often asked how agencies share information and coordinate activities; the IWGN is one important avenue for such communication and collaboration. As the group moves forward, we are particularly interested in strengthening our interactions with SfN.
The working group first met in September 2012 and recently released its final report. What are the key findings in the report and what are the implications of this work for the field?
The IWGN was charged with producing a report that identified “concrete actions the federal government can take to enable acceleration of progress” in key research areas. The IWGN identified five areas: (1) understanding and applying the brain’s information processing capabilities; (2) understanding and treating brain diseases, disorders, and trauma; (3) understanding and optimizing interactions between the environment and the brain across the lifespan; (4) translating research to practice; and (5) improving communication and engaging the public.
The recommendations span a broad spectrum of neuroscience research but focus on strategies to enhance communication among agencies to better identify shared interests, goals, and resources; to bring together individuals from multiple scientific and user communities to strengthen scientific collaborations; and to improve coordination and collaboration among federal agencies when planning new research initiatives. There are already many existing or planned collaborative neuroscience research initiatives, such as the BRAIN project, the Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience program, and the Big Data initiative, as well as resources funded jointly by federal agencies. These collaborations will inform and provide potential models for future activities.
The IWGN report does not make funding recommendations. The strategies and activities recommended range from those that can be achieved in the short term without additional funding to those that would require significant investments of time, effort, and additional funds across multiple agencies. The recommendations are intended to facilitate collaborations and minimize redundancy.
How is the working group related to other government programs, such as the BRAIN Initiative and the NIH’s Neuroscience Blueprint?
The IWGN fosters collaboration and communication among federal agencies across a spectrum of programmatic activities, policies, and issues. The BRAIN Initiative and the NIH Neuroscience Blueprint involve specific agencies that are members of the IWGN. The IWGN serves as a forum for those agencies and other interested parties to exchange information and ideas about these and other neuroscience initiatives.
The BRAIN Initiative includes NIH, NSF, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and multiple private sector participants, and has involved close collaboration among federal agencies and extensive consultation with scientific and lay stakeholders. Many other federal agencies fund projects with goals related to those of BRAIN. The IWGN will work to ensure that agencies are in a position to capitalize on funding opportunities and research breakthroughs that the BRAIN Initiative will enable.
The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research is a cooperative effort among the 16 NIH institutes, centers, and offices that support neuroscience research. It optimizes communication among these components of NIH and provides a mechanism for joint funding initiatives. Several of NIH’s representatives on the IWGN are also involved in Blueprint activities. They share information about these activities with the IWGN, thereby helping to coordinate Blueprint efforts with those of other federal agencies. The same is true of other federal investments such as the Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience program, involving NSF, NIH, international partners, and Big Data efforts.
Is the working group also coordinating with groups outside of the U.S. government, such as universities, businesses, or international partners?
The IWGN is a part of a wider White House Neuroscience Initiative that promotes partnerships with the private sector to advance neuroscience research and its impact. The member agencies of the IWGN have been and continue to be actively pursuing and engaging in extensive collaborations with universities and private and nonprofit organizations, both domestic and international. For example, NIH, NSF, DARPA, and FDA are all engaged in the President’s BRAIN Initiative along with a number of private partners including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Kavli Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Furthermore, the U.S. BRAIN Initiative and the European Union’s Human Brain Project have plans to enhance coordination of the research programs. The IWGN and its members would also be interested in engaging professional organizations, such as SfN, to leverage interest in neuroscience research.
What can SfN members do to encourage continued focus on biomedical research by the U.S. federal government?
IWGN members believe that there are unprecedented opportunities in neuroscience research. However, as the SfN membership is well aware, the current funding climate makes it impossible to capitalize fully on these opportunities. As SfN President Carol Mason emphasized in her recent message, it is critical that researchers communicate the spectacular progress they are making in neuroscience. SfN members and their institutions need to share the excitement of their discoveries with the public and emphasize that many breakthroughs in basic and medical research are made possible through public funding of neuroscience.