Friday, April 12, 2013

Society for Neuroscience President: “Shut Up,” He Explained

With over 42,000 members the Society for Neuroscience is the largest scientific association in the field. Its president, Larry Swanson, sent an email to members today discussing President Obama’s brain research initiative. It is a remarkable document. I reprint it in full below (emphases mine).

Swanson makes two points: SfN members should support the plan because money, and they should keep any misgivings about it to themselves because money.

This disgraceful note is what passes for science advocacy today.
Dear fellow Society for Neuroscience members,

Following a week of extraordinary attention to the field of neuroscience and support for biomedical research, I write to share the SfN Executive Committee’s view about President Obama’s announcement of a U.S. brain research initiative and why we believe it is important for the neuroscience community to both embrace and help shape it through scientific dialogue. I had the privilege of attending the President’s announcement at the White House, and, after listening to his words, I am excited and confident that this and other emerging global funding initiatives can be tremendously positive for our field.

The announcement comes at a critical time in neuroscience. Unparalleled scientific progress and possibility co-exist alongside growing challenges caused by shrinking or flat national government budgets for science research. Precisely because of these realities, the Executive Committee believes the President’s announcement represents a critical moment to both pursue scientific opportunities and make the case that now is the time to increase science investment. Last Tuesday’s White House announcement prioritized an initial investment in pilot tools and technologies. We think this is a reasonable place to start as it acknowledges the long horizons and deep challenges inherent in studying the brain, as well as the advantages of developing revolutionary new methods for discovery. The project also has established a rigorous process for determining investments and future planning, with an exemplary NIH Advisory Committee comprised of distinguished scientists from across our field with a strong emphasis on basic science.

While we should all continue to explore and discuss questions about the scientific direction, it is important that our community be perceived as positive about the incredible opportunity represented in the President’s announcement. If we are perceived as unreasonably negative or critical about initial details, we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started.

At the same time, SfN knows that scientists will be challenged to make progress on even these initial projects — let alone pursue the field’s ongoing vital work — without sustained and growing financial investment in the scientific enterprise. The President articulated the outlines of a possible long-term vision for focusing on brain research, with an emphasis on basic science, and NIH Director Francis Collins has consistently emphasized that the initiative likely requires a project spanning a decade or more and strong NIH-wide funding. His comparisons of the project to the Human Genome Project, while not a perfect scientific analogy, suggests to the public a long-term commitment. To help realize these possibilities, SfN will continue advocating strongly for sustained investments to support neuroscience and the biomedical research enterprise overall, and we will need all of your voices in those efforts for years to come.

SfN encourages healthy debate and rigorous dialogue about the effort’s scientific directions. Testing of assumptions, methodological debate, and constructive competition are central to scientific progress. I urge you to bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues, including the SfN annual meeting in San Diego this fall and The Journal of Neuroscience.

Thanks to your extraordinary scientific achievements, the neuroscience field is capturing the world’s attention, and, here in the United States, rallying a nation to support more focus on scientific discovery. Thank you for your commitment to advancing science and improving health. I look forward to participating with all of you in this ongoing discussion as the initiative takes shape.

Larry Swanson
SfN President
This message shows that Swanson is clearly in damage control mode. Obama's BRAIN proposal has been criticized by many scientists and Swanson wants to suppress open dissent so as not to jeopardize SfN's rent seeking activities.

Exit question: Can you find the part where Swanson describes the actual neuroscience that $100 million in tax money will buy?

Bonus question: What is the scientific term for “trust us”? (Answer: “an exemplary NIH Advisory Committee comprised of distinguished scientists.”)

Bonus question 2: What is the scientific term for “don’t air your disagreement in public”? (Answer: “bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues.”)


sherapop said...

Thank goodness there are still a few honest critics around--dont Avery Gilbert!

sherapop said...

By the way, isn't this just the latest, ramped-up stage in DARPA's effort to study the soldier's brain in order to eliminate "the human element" (aka conscience) from warfare? They've been conducting drug and microchip studies for decades now.

Well, let's just hope that I'm not taken out by Predator drone for having made this comment. ;-)

Avery Gilbert said...

Shera Pop:

Not sure which one you have in mind, but DARPA projects I'm familiar with are more focused in topic or technology, not grandiose mega-programs.

If you're worried about being a Predator target you'll have to talk to the Nobel Peace Prize winner in the White House.

Luca Venturini said...

Excuse me but I disagree a bit with your full throated critic .. It is true that scientific discussion should be open, frank and public so to eradicate wrong ideas the soonest; however, the president's remark that scientific budgets are constantly shrinking nowadays is an important concern, especially with austerians and conservatives prone to slash whatever they dislike. The point being that if the initiative does not pass, the money will be lost to science, not reallocated to some other programme; whereas if it passes, such a huge initiative will probably coordinate dozens of projects, any of which can be discussed and eventually ditched. The step the president took was far more political than scientific, but truly, he is working for science using politics in this moment. And if politically right now a united front is what is needed, then he is right to ask people to tone down their voices and keep the discussion going in less exposed arenas. Unpalatable as that may sound, it may be a smart move: especially considering that the alternative might be getting exactly nothing.

Avery Gilbert said...

Luca Venturini:

Welcome. On FirstNerve (unlike SfN) you need never excuse yourself for expressing disagreement.

I don’t buy your implied premise that the $100 million is “new money.” Until we see an actual Congressional funding proposal, we won’t know whether this is new money or money pulled from existing programs. That’s one reason some of my colleagues are wary of it.

I found your defense of Larry Swanson illuminating. You’ve established what he is and we’re not even haggling about the price.

Anonymous said...

Very good point. He writes a long letter without any real justification for why the money s needed. How about some results?

Avery Gilbert said...


Right. The bigger the money, the better the justification should be. Swanson has it backwards. He essentially says, "this money is too big to risk by discussing how well justified it is."

Kingson Man said...

lol. you had me at "Chicago-style politics". smells like sour grapes.

All Swanson is asking — as the leader of the most significant organization in this community — is for the community to chill out with the uninformed reflexive criticism, and to wait for the details to be decided before we all have a whack at it.

Anonymous said...

Asking what the content of the program is = "uninformed reflexive criticism"?


That sounds like Iron Curtain talk to me.

JohnR said...

I have nothing substantive to contribute, being merely a biologist of sorts, but I must say that I'm impressed that Dr. Swanson has a fine grasp of manager-speak for a scientist. I wouldn't get too worked up about the letter, though - I suspect he was just running it up the flagpole to see who saluted. By the way, did everybody get the memo about the new coversheets on the TPS reports?

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