Message From the President: Becoming a Science Advocate
A neuroscientist’s world must now extend far beyond the four walls of a laboratory. In addition to conducting research, teaching, and writing, we must also spend time advocating for our field. Neuroscientists should view the recently sworn-in Congress, with its 67 new members, as an opportunity to educate and engage policymakers about the importance of our research. Explaining to elected officials — in a way that they can easily understand and appreciate — why our research deserves their political and financial support has become a critical role for our community.
Two years ago, across-the-board spending cuts sliced $1.5 billion from the NIH budget and $356 million from NSF. While there has been a reprieve from those cuts, “sequestration” could make a return later in 2015, and even if it stays dormant, science budgets remain very anemic. Although many neuroscientists may not be particularly comfortable in the advocacy role, it is vital that we each do our part to develop a new generation of legislators who understand that science is a priority.
No one is more qualified than we are to explain what we do and why it is important. By illustrating the powerful impact of neuroscience, we can help secure the resources that we need now and for the longer term. I strongly encourage SfN members to get involved in advocacy efforts this year — and let the Society help you succeed.
Framing the Conversation
Many of us are drawn to science for the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and discovery — to further our understanding of the brain and nervous system. To capture the attention of policymakers, however, we have to understand and appeal to their interests in scientific research. This means emphasizing that their support for neuroscience research can not only lead to improvements in their constituents’ well-being, but can also mitigate the burgeoning costs entailed by an aging population. Scientific progress is crucial for reducing human suffering caused by neurological and psychiatric disorders and for curtailing the relentlessly rising health care costs associated with neurodegenerative diseases and neuropsychiatric conditions that lack effective treatments. In addition, public funding of scientific research creates substantial economic benefits by forming the foundations for vibrant life sciences and device-related industries.
Why should policymakers support neuroscience now? Neuroscientists are better positioned than ever before to achieve significant scientific progress because of incredible new tools and technologies developed during the past decade. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is hastening the creation of yet more potent technologies to further basic science. BRAIN does so by bringing neuroscientists together with engineers, chemists, and physicists with a focus on building tools and discovering foundational knowledge about the brain. Explaining the benefits of BRAIN can help persuade policymakers to stand with this broad spectrum of scientists collaborating for the greater good. The resulting new tools allow us to make observations that are essential to basic science, which undergirds advances in understanding brain disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injuries such as those suffered by members of our military.
SfN’s Advocacy Tools and Activities
The Society provides a number of tools at SfN.org/advocacy to help members launch their efforts. SfN’s Advocacy Network and its Early Career Policy Fellows Program offer opportunities for direct involvement in advocacy. The fellowship program engages early-career scientists to make advocacy a regular part of their work, while the Advocacy Network provides a platform for members to learn and discuss a variety of advocacy tools and experiences.
One of the most effective ways to reach your elected officials is through in-person meetings or other direct contact, such as SfN’s Capitol Hill Day. I look forward to joining my SfN colleagues on March 25 and 26 to meet face to face with members of Congress and their staffs to discuss the incredible value of neuroscience research and the implications for improving public health, strengthening the economy, and continuing scientific progress. If you are interested in joining us on Hill Day, read the related article in this issue of NQ and email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved. If you can’t make it to Washington, DC, you can conduct similar activities locally. Call or write to your legislators, meet with them in their district office, or participate in a congressional town hall meeting. Better yet, invite elected officials to tour your lab or institution — there is no substitute for a firsthand view of the exciting work occurring in our field. Visit SfN’s Action Center at SfN.org/ActionCenter to identify your elected officials and learn how to contact them.
Advocacy, however, is not reserved for the U.S. Congress. SfN also partners with international organizations to build support for science funding on a global scale. Advocacy successes in Europe and Asia will benefit the global community by increasing familiarity with the issues. SfN and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) work closely with the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) on the IBRO Global Advocacy Initiative, an effort to encourage national neuroscience societies and their members to engage with policymakers and discuss the importance of neuroscience research. This initiative aims to ensure that neuroscientists have access to culturally relevant content and programming, with a focus on those areas with the greatest need for education and advocacy. These and other similar organizations operate in Canada, Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere. Consider reaching out of to one of our partners if you have interest in advocating outside the U.S. Advocating for our field is truly a worldwide effort.
We must not succumb to the hopelessness that our current budget environment engenders. Instead, we should embrace the chance to speak to new audiences about our work and to create new allies. We are our own best advocates, and with SfN’s help, you can be ready to accept a role educating policymakers and the public. I hope you will find opportunities to deliver our message about the importance of brain research and become the advocate that neuroscience critically needs.