Q&A: FENS President Discusses Global Advocacy and Collaboration
Monica Di Luca is president of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) as well as vice-director and professor in the Department Pharmacological Sciences at the University of Milano. She is also a former member of SfN’s Women in Neuroscience and Professional Development committees.
As president of FENS, what are your priorities for your two-year term? What initiatives or programs are underway to fulfill your goals?
FENS has developed several activities to promote neuroscience research and collaboration in Europe. The most visible action is the organization of the FENS Forum, Europe’s preeminent neuroscience meeting. We are in the process of organizing the next forum, which will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in July 2016. In addition, FENS recently launched a series of biannual smaller conferences, the Brain Conferences, in collaboration with the Brain Prize.
I have two main additional goals for my two-year term. The first one, really close to my heart, is to strengthen the role of FENS as a key player in advocacy. This is indeed a critical moment for neuroscience research funding in Europe, and we would like to reach the stage where brain research is recognized as a priority and is highly prioritized in political agendas both locally, in each European country, and at the European Commission. To do this, FENS is leading the effort to prepare a Consensus Document on Brain Research with the help of the scientific community at large; this document will show not only the major challenges in neuroscience research but also the impact that funding in this area could have on our society. In addition, we are collaborating with the European Brain Council on other projects aimed at promoting neuroscience at the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.
My second goal is to help the FENS member societies grow and promote neuroscience in their own countries, exploiting their diversities of goals and respecting difficulties.
You have been a longtime advocate of science outreach and advocacy. What opportunities do you see for activities in these areas during your term as FENS president?
The urgency to understand the nervous system is best explained by numbers: The EU spends 800 billion euros annually on citizens suffering from brain disorders. About 127 million European citizens are affected by a brain disorder. Despite these major challenges and all the efforts of the European scientific community, we are still struggling against the discrepancy between the huge societal impact of brain diseases and the rather modest financial and time resources allocated to brain research, teaching, and the care of brain diseases. FENS has embraced the position as key stakeholder for the European Commission, which has the potential to influence policymakers and thus research policy in Europe. FENS has a strong voice for neuroscience advocacy, and in collaboration with partner organizations including the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) and SfN, we are in the position to structure a win-win strategy in favor of neuroscience research in and outside Europe.
What are some of the challenges facing neuroscientists in Europe and how do you envision FENS helping to address them?
We are experiencing some critical challenges related to neuroscience research. One challenge is linked to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has been reassessing its neuroscience research activities in Europe because of lower prospects for return on investment. This reduction of private investment is very serious for patients as well as for the development of research because both academic and industrial research forms the foundation of new breakthroughs in terms of cures for major brain disorders. FENS is participating in the debate with the pharmaceutical industry in the frame of the European Brain Council, where all key players in the European arena related to brain research are closely collaborating.
FENS is fully committed to the responsible use of animals in research. In Europe, the use of animals in biomedical research has been under debate in the context of a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). This initiative suggested the immediate abolition of all animal research. While the petition was denied and current policy upheld, FENS will continue to support the existing European directive for the use of animals in biomedical research that is based on specific language to reduce, refine, and replace animals used in research whenever possible. Neuroscience, however, still relies on animal models to understand complex brain processes that are otherwise impossible to decode, and FENS is involved in a continuous dialogue with policymakers and the general public about this issue.
What are FENS and its member societies doing to support trainees? How are those experiences unique and where might there be opportunities for collaboration on a more global basis?
FENS has many different programs in higher education and training in the neuroscience field, and we work in close collaboration with reputable partner organizations in the implementation of European training and education.
In addition to the traditional and well-known FENS-SfN summer school and FENS- Hertie winter school, this year saw the start of the CAJAL Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme, launched in collaboration with IBRO, the University of Bordeaux Neurocampus, and the Champalimaud Foundation.
For the first two years the program proposes courses including cutting-edge techniques and concepts relevant to modern neuroscience. The CAJAL program will provide a new strong focal point for international neuroscience training, and it will fill the need for a pan-European training center in which neuroscientists in all stages of their careers can meet, learn, and form new scientific networks. The CAJAL program is open to international collaborations and has already attracted a number of international societies that chose one of the two sites for organizing high-level hands-on courses.
The other important new FENS initiative, in partnership with the Kavli Foundation, reflects part of FENS commitment to promote networking among the next generation of neuroscientists. The FENS Kavli Network of Excellence is composed of highly talented young neuroscientists not only excellent in their own scientific domains but also with a strong motivation to be proactive and support the neuroscience community in general, hopefully synergizing with FENS initiatives and strategies.