Message From the President: A Healthy Neuroscience "Ecosystem"
While we, as scientists, advocate for more generous and reliable funding of neuroscience, it is also critical that we educate policymakers, funders, and ultimately the public about the need to support a healthy scientific portfolio that encompasses basic research and tool-building as well as translational research.
As neuroscientists, we are confronted every day by the astonishing complexity of nervous systems ranging from the simplest model organisms to our own species. We recognize the challenging scientific terrain still in front of us if we are to gain the deep understandings that will reliably yield benefits for health and more broadly for society. A central motivation for the work of many neuroscientists comes from the terrible toll imposed on individuals, families, and society by diseases of the nervous system. Across the human lifespan, brain disorders impair cognition, emotion regulation, motivation, and control of movement and other behaviors, resulting in suffering, disability, and high costs.
Despite this high disease burden, the significant prevalence of many brain disorders, and vast unmet treatment needs, the pharmaceutical industry has progressively abandoned most areas of brain research during the past five years. Many leaders in industry see the human brain as too difficult and brain research as too early in its development to warrant significant near-term investment. Moreover, companies are attracted by the remarkably high prices they can attach to drugs for cancer, a class of diseases that they see as more scientifically tractable than neuroscience.
Given the enormous mismatch between the needs of individuals with brain disorders and current research portfolios within the pharmaceutical industry, people affected by brain disorders, policymakers, and funders have strongly encouraged scientists to work increasingly on translating our current knowledge of the nervous system into treatments. I strongly endorse the need to develop better understandings of disease mechanisms and to make significant progress toward therapeutics. However, I believe it is also important to address the false assumptions that 1) we largely possess the knowledge we need to undergird translational efforts and 2) failures to translate result from bureaucratic rather than scientific obstacles. Failing to address these incorrect views not only risks the creation false hope and unrealistic timelines for therapies — which in the long run is damaging to the research enterprise — but can also influence funders to direct scientists to premature translational goals, with the paradoxical result of slowing the scientific march toward desperately needed treatments.
In my recent discussions with legislators, government officials involved in health policy, patient groups, and the press — many of these conversations on behalf of SfN — I was reminded that many people are unaware of the steps needed to discover new treatments. Too often I heard views suggesting that the biggest barriers to new therapeutics consist of inadequate funding for translational research, a failure of nerve on the part of excessively conservative industry executives and investors, and meddlesome regulatory agencies worldwide. The path of least resistance in these conversations would leave such beliefs unchallenged — and, indeed, I have directly experienced the discomfort of sharing with members of Congress or members of the press how grudgingly the human brain gives up its secrets. Such conversations have left me searching for a way to depict healthy funding priorities for our field while also addressing the compelling needs of those suffering from brain disorders and the strong commitment of neuroscientists to help. To enhance the vitality and success of neuroscience while also serving the needs of patients, we must have a healthy neuroscience ecosystem in which there is adequate funding for basic neuroscience, tool-building, and translational research.
Components of the Ecosystem
Notwithstanding the extraordinary excitement about neuroscience today, we remain mired in a period in which there is a dearth of public funding for our field, and indeed all of science, both in the U.S. and in most countries worldwide. This lack of science funding exacerbates tensions among basic scientists, those developing new technologies, and translational researchers. The steadily worsening difficulties of keeping labs funded influence grant applicants and peer reviewers in a way that often elevates feasibility over significance and risk-taking, and claims of disease relevance over basic inquiry.
In a blog post concerning basic neuroscience on the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) website last year, then-Director Story Landis wrote about the institute's efforts to analyze its research investments. Landis noted “a striking decline” in the funding of purely basic research, as opposed to disease-oriented basic research, and also pointed out that applications to support purely basic research declined while applications for disease-focused basic research increased.
She expressed concern that the decrease in the number of purely basic research applications reflected a mistaken perception that NINDS is only interested in disease-oriented research. While not all NIH institutes observed similar trends, Landis noted that if the goal is “advancing scientific knowledge and translating that knowledge into therapies that benefit patients,” then it is critical to maintain “a robust and balanced pipeline across the research spectrum.”
In terms of advancing our field, one bright spot has been the attention of governments in many countries to a variety of brain initiatives. In the U.S., the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative — the topic of my previous column — has emerged as an intellectually and pragmatically powerful effort that, by supporting the development of new tools, technologies, and critical platform knowledge, could advance many areas of neuroscience. However, despite support from NIH and NSF leadership, this effort appears to be receiving significantly less funding for investigator-initiated projects than has been recommended and could be wisely spent.
While policymakers around the globe tend to be receptive to the significance of translational work, the value of basic science research, technology development, and the kind of discovery research that can yield important new observations is not necessarily intuitive to them, as they are understandably looking for the direct benefits of research in terms of improving health and industry for their citizens. It is therefore critical that we as scientists educate policymakers, government officials, and even our own universities and institutions about the importance of basic science, to ensure that it is properly funded and that it has a proper place in the neuroscience ecosystem.
We must communicate to them that basic research is the body of knowledge on which translational research is based and is essential for discoveries that will inspire scientific and medical progress for generations. Research supported by governments has been central to the development of many of the new technologies that have revolutionized neuroscience research as well as many of the basic discoveries without which applications that improve public health would not be possible. Corporate and philanthropic funding of course play a role in funding the ecosystem, but the foundation that basic research provides is at risk if governmental support declines, and it is historically the case that the more targeted interests of industry and private donors build on the foundation of publicly funded basic science.
The U.S. Congress and other national legislatures should certainly encourage the translation of discoveries made through public investment into practical applications, but they cannot do so effectively if they target the preponderance of their support too narrowly or if they demand translation even when it is premature. While the shortsightedness of many governments with respect to the funding of science has created intense competition for grants, we also have to remember that, whatever kind of science we do, we are highly interdependent. In the end, we can provide the most benefit to those suffering with brain disorders if we have a healthy neuroscience ecosystem.
Get Involved in SfN
I have immensely enjoyed my year as SfN president and the opportunities I've had to engage with other SfN members, including those active volunteer leaders on Council and committees, as well as with the SfN staff. I encourage all SfN members to get involved with this respected, well-run organization and to help contribute to forwarding its important mission of advancing understanding of the brain and nervous system. Thank you for your engagement and support.