Neuroscientists: Start Electing Advocates

Mar 03 2015 Published by under Society for Neuroscience

NamasteIshIconThe following is a guest post from Namaste. Ish. Previously known as the bluebird of happiness, My T. Chondria. Stuff happened. The kitten walked away. Deal with it.

WANTED: Outspoken advocates for neuroscience research who is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, call Congress Critters out on the current implosion of science funding and opportunities for trainees.

QUALIFICATIONS: Membership in the Society for Neuroscience.

JOB DESCRIPTION: The Society seeks “Leaders who best represent the interests and needs of the membership.”


With over 40,000 members, I look at the presidents of the SfN and wonder; do these people represent my interests and needs? I mean, do I have common struggles with folks in the National Academy, with HHMI status who have unfettered access to top tier journal editors and members of NIH Council? The answer is no, as I imagine it is for most of you.

Admittedly all of the people have made extraordinary contributions to neuroscience research, and have mentored countless outstanding scientists but this is not the job. The job is advocacy and I’m unimpressed.

I did a little experiment and searched Google News for 10 of the last presidents and came up with a rather unimpressive 40 events in which the lot of them had touted science (other than their own work) in any mainstream media outlet. These folks are putting out their semi annual newsletters and gaining ZERO traction in the real world. We can’t afford to preach to the choir any longer. We need people who will use a broad array of social media, PR and outreach tools to get the message across immediately.

I don’t know a single event around the SfN meeting in which the President or Counselors talk openly with the public, invite lawmakers to the meeting and chaperone them thru the day highlighting our biggest and most exciting stories as well as our most personal struggles as a community. We need these things to survive. We do not live in a culture that embraces science and education and where rational thought is valued. I know for sure we won’t get there by sending newsletters to ourselves. I would go so far as to argue that some of the past presidents are part of the problem we currently have in science. There are past SfN presidents in their late 70’s and beyond who still hold faculty appointments, are getting grants, holding onto research space, dollars and trainees when the market has a glut of young talent and few job vacancies.

NIH cannot petition Congress for money. So your society presidents and counselors need to be doing this and facilitating ways for us to do it as a group. We can no longer afford to be handing out these jobs as yet another feather in the caps of BSDs. Anyone who thinks we should need look no further than the ASBMB who ended up with Steve McKnight as a president who promptly used his column to tell the wee folks of science they are not worthy of performing NIH reviews or judging his work.

Nominate someone who will do better and represent you here. By Friday.

35 responses so far

  • Grumble says:

    I tried to nominate "Drugmonkey" but the form wouldn't allow me to submit.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I decline!

  • mytchondria says:

    Too late Ted. I know a dozen people that nominated you. And several of them aren't even in prison.

  • louis says:


  • Drugmonkey says:

    You don't know anyone who isn't in prison. Nice try.

  • toto says:

    "If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if there are free donuts and coffee, where do I sign?"

  • sciencegirl says:

    I think this observation is spot on. How are we ever going to convince the public of the worth of our work if we don't have engaged advocates. A good example of a gifted science advocate IMO is the current ASV president Vincent Raccaniello. I don't know what he does with respect to Congress, but as far as being engaged with the greater community, he is top notch. Other society leaders could learn a lot from his example.

  • panchophd says:

    Nominate all you want. Still got to get past the "Nomination Committee" that weeds out candidates.

  • Datahound says:

    I do not know about SfN, but ASBMB has an active Public Affairs Advisory Committee who do a lot of heavy lifting with regard to Congress and Advocacy. As President, I interacted with them frequently and tried to empower them as much as possible, but they have functioned and continue to function largely independently of the President, led by an ASBMB staff member (now 2 plus a fellow).

  • Datahound says:

    As an addendum to my earlier comment, much advocacy depends on having members of the scientific societies from the districts of members involved. If I, as ASBMB President, met with a member of Congress or a staffer along with a faculty member, student, or postdoc from their district/state, I was largely ignored and they listened (or at least pretended to listen) to their constituent. Scientific societies (FASEB, ASBMB, etc.) can provide district by district information about the local impact of NIH funding. Remarkably, this sometimes seems like news to the Members/staffers, depending, of course, on their district.

  • Mytchondria says:

    Hound, you're a number genius and I defer to your wisdom on 'how things are'. But how things are is not okay. And I speak of things I know. I am not a BSD, but you can find more quotes from me on science, disease and funding in the national media than you can for any of the last five SfN presidents. If advocacy was a presidents passion, they would find a way to use the honor bestowed on them by their peers. Congress, national and local media as well as the social media all need stronger, more vocal science leaders. Not to mention the national meeting itself as a platform for why this climate is disaterous for science.
    Hound, you have taught me much about how things are. But let's agree to disagree on how they can be. This can be done in short order and hard work with those who demand more of themselves and their societies.

  • Spike Lee says:

    Agree with datahound that SfN needs it's own aggressive Public Affairs arm -- especially one that can operate quasi-independenly from the SfN leadership, which changes year-to-year.

    It's fine to elect a "good advocate" for a year, but what do you do when they leave office 12 months later? Better to have - I can't believing I'm saying this - professional lobbyists who live and breathe PR, social media, and outreach.

  • Ola says:

    Compare and contrast the situation at the SfN annual meeting with the annual AHA meeting, where there are news trucks queuing up around the block. A lot has to do with getting the MDs on board - AHA has massive buy in from the clinicians, but SfN is more academic. Maybe that needs some attention?

  • Spike Lee says:

    AHA vs SfN: I imagine that disease prevalence is a big factor here. In the US prevalence of CHD is something like 20% in those 65 and older, and it's the #1 single cause of death. Alzheimers is less prevalent (~10%?) and is the the 5th or 6th leading cause, behind cancer and others.

  • louis says:

    "You don't know anyone who isn't in prison. Nice try."

    I do. And that is Youuuuuuuu!. ( To the best of my knowledge, of course).

    just kiddin monkey!

  • Datahound says:

    Mytchondria: I was not saying the you (we) should lower our expectations or settle for how things are, but rather was indicating some ideas about strategy and tactics. While news coverage can have some impact (and should be pursued where appropriate), getting traction with Congress is usually a more behind-the-scences development of an agenda and identification and cultivation of champions willing to push. Having a President that is interested in pursuing such activities is good and important. Thus, I think we will have to agree to agree.

    SfN has the potential to be a powerful force given interest given the prevalence and importance of Alzheimers and other diseases. Unfortunately, the BRAIN Initiative is consuming a lot of oxygen around neuroscience and it was rolled out in such a way that it the community was not involved until after the fact. I am also very frustrated that Francis Collins and many other leaders at NIH either do not understand how much damage has been and is continuing to be done to those in scientific careers and are unwilling to state this to Congress as forcefully as it needs to be stated. I have tried on several occasions to tell him directly that IMO you do not need some banner program to "sell" to Congress when you have the fraying fabric of our great scientific enterprise to display.

    The more clinical meetings get considerable media attention mostly because of breaking news about clinical studies. These play well in the media. I have only briefly attended a SfN meeting, but academic neuroscience probably is hard for the media to capture in sound bites compared to clinical trial results.

    SfN is also a member of the Coalition for Life Sciences ( ). This organization has considerable potential given its member organization but it has not been all that effective. When I was ASBMB President, we withdrew from CLS to put more resources into ASBMB's advocacy efforts. This is another vehicle that could be tapped and the SfN members (particularly the younger and mid-career folks) should demand reports and results for the funds invested.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Eli was a member of a small group of academic center directors who first of all set up an independent directors organization which held meetings twice a year. Once somewhere and the other in DC in the Spring (they,not Eli, were BSDs and BSDs do not visit Washington DC in the summer)

    The important part of the DC meeting was the day when the center directors and people (including students) they brought with them visited members of Congress and the Senate from their own state.

    Even though the agency wanted to cut the program off at the nuts, it is still going under congressional mandate as a line item.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Datahound - do you really think that Congresspeople would care about our career trajectories? Why should the American people care about *our* career anxieties - real unemployment/underemployment remains high across the board.

  • physioprof says:

    Neuro-C is exactly correct. To the contrary, the constituents of the Republican party LOOOOOOOVE to see "eggheads" getting fucked over and suffering.

  • datahound says:

    I think the best arguments are (1) inefficiency and (2) long-term competitiveness. How does it make sense to invest hundreds of thousands or millions of taxpayer (and other) dollars to develop the career of a talented biomedical scientist only to deny them a career or to cut them off in their prime? This frames the question not in terms of the poor academic who has to change career paths but rather in terms of the taxpayer's (and other) investments bringing a new person in to suffer the same fate. In terms of long-term competitiveness, the argument is that the "best and brightest" will consider other careers with less societal payoff. Why would a young physician try to establish a research career that could influence many lives rather than just seeing patients when the research career path is so unstable? Why would a young potential scientist get a PhD and go into research when the path looks so unstable? Knowing what I know now, I would certainly have considered a much broader range of career paths than I did when I started.

    I think these arguments could be honed to be quite compelling although it would take some serious thought to do it well.

  • mytchondria says:

    I agree with DataHound that he should write a NYTimes Op/Ed and get some cosigners in the wake of Collins' Congressional appearance.

  • Bill Martin says:

    It’s great to see a discussion emerge about the importance of science advocacy, and I urge more scientists to get involved. As incoming chair of the SfN Government and Public Affairs Committee and a past SfN Councilor, I want to correct the record about SfN’s advocacy leadership, and the vital role of presidents. For more than a decade, SfN has consistently advocated strongly for increased funding for research; just this week, the Society joined Research!America in calling for a 10% increase for NIH.

    A Google search of news articles may not be the best measure of advocacy leadership. Raising awareness and building support for research funding is long-term, multi-faceted work. The Society’s work also often happens best out of the limelight, by helping scientists worldwide become effective advocates; ensuring consistent education of and engagement with policymakers; providing ways to help members engage; and working in partnership with other leading groups. I am pleased to highlight below some of SfN’s advocacy and outreach activities and metrics. I would note that every one of the SfN Presidents pictured has been on Capitol Hill advocating for science, some of them many times; three of those pictured will be on the Hill again later this month on SfN's Hill Day.

    Next week SfN will be awarded the Paul G. Rogers Distinguished Organization Advocacy Award by Research!America, the leading biomedical research advocacy organization. From my time on Council, I know that SfN’s advocacy commitment, begun more than 40 years ago at SfN’s founding, is and will remain central to discussions at all Council meetings.

    Most important, thanks for an opportunity to invite DrugMonkey readers to get involved in SfN advocacy. Join our Advocacy Network or contact Your consistent engagement is even more important given challenges in Washington. We can’t let those challenges diminish our vision and our long-term commitment to advocacy. Let’s keep our focus on being advocates for what is possible and funding that is needed to see big gains for science and the American public.

    Here are a few highlights of SfN activity, and ways you can get involved:

    • SfN Presidential Congressional Testimony and Hill Days: Current SfN President Steve E. Hyman will testify before Congress later this month at a special hearing on neuroscience and his current presidential column urges members to get involved. Past SfN presidents who have also testified over the last decade include Donald Price, Huda Akil, Anne Young, Steve Heinemann, and Michael Goldberg. For 8 years, SfN presidents have led a growing Capitol Hill Day, which last year resulted in more than 75 meetings with congressional leaders across the political spectrum. Meetings with Members and staff focus on the importance of research funding, and the role NIH and NSF as scientific, health and economic engines for the U.S. and the world. Capitol Hill Day “veterans,” including Early Career Policy Fellows whom SfN sponsors, return to their communities and engage with their Congressional members throughout the year.
    • Helping Members Engage: The SfN Advocacy Network helps members stay informed and take action. Join the SfN Advocacy Network for webinars on how to become a more effective advocate, Congressional inner workings, and honing an advocacy message. SfN helps our members invite and host members of Congress for labs tours in their home districts, and use town halls, letters to the editor, and op-eds to communicate the local impact of NIH and NSF funding. SfN works closely with FENS and IBRO, helping to spark advocacy discussion and encourage culturally relevant action through national societies around the world. Lab tours have gone global, too -- SfN was delighted that a member was encouraged to host the Prime Minister of India for a tour of stem cell research!
    • Partnerships: SfN works closely with groups like Research!America and the American Brain Coalition, a coalition of more than 80 brain-related patient advocacy groups. With ABC, SfN was instrumental in working with U.S. congressional leaders to form the U.S. Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, which hosts regular Capitol Hill briefings about new basic science discoveries and their potential to advance science and improve health. The Coalition for the Life Sciences, another partner, provides a vital table where societies and leaders of NIH, NSF, FDA and other bodies discuss major policy issues and scientific society perspectives. CLS’s advocacy voice was also instrumental in repelling efforts to undermine the NIH peer review system, ensuring scientific merit prevails over political pressure, and they feature neuroscience prominently through the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus, including recent events on aging, sleep, BRAIN, and many others.
    • Public Outreach and Information: Ultimately, long-term public support for science depends on an educated and engaged global citizenry. SfN shares the wonders of the brain and mind with a global public and engages teachers in the long-term effort to educate the next generation. Under direction of a scientific Editorial Board, features more than 1,000 pieces of scientist-vetted information and educational resources, and has welcomed more than 4 million page views in under three years from a global public. SfN’s annual meeting media program generated more than 3,000 news pieces last year alone and nearly 13,000 since 2006, and its social media feeds draw more than 150,000 followers, providing a daily dose of neuroscience education.
    We, too, fervently wish a great news quote or two could change the advocacy outlook. The reality is that progress is made over months, years and decades. Neuroscience is on the cusp of revolutionary advances, and SfN remains committed to sharing the progress and potential of the field with policymakers worldwide. Even in a time of challenged funding, the field is seeing progress -- public leaders worldwide are increasingly focused on the importance of understanding the brain and nervous system. We’re honored to support members in their advocacy, and to be recognized by Research!America for our work. We look forward to welcoming you to the effort!

    Bill Martin

  • namaste_ish says:

    Dear Dr Martin,

    Thank you for your response to my post. I appreciate your willingness to join the dialogue. Your well-crafted response is surely the party line at SfN, but your post is dismissive and insulting in ways you should be aware of given your position at SfN.

    You navigate entirely away from my point to the safe waters of 'look what we are doing' and give the impression that SfN is doing a good job. They aren’t. I take issue with your characterization of my post saying "We, too, fervently wish a great news quote or two could change the advocacy outlook " Show me where I am so ignorant and naïve that I said that or could be interpreted as having said that. Your assumption that I am outside the effort or that the regular readers of DMs blog are (you "welcomed" us to the effort) is also wrong. Very few people who have posted on this blog or in the Twitter stream related to this post are noob advocates.

    I have done outreach. I have gone to the Hill. I've signed every petition sent by Research!America, SfN, FASEB, Act for NIH as well as spoken to my elected officials. I have pled with the public to fund science research in every bit of PR and outreach I’ve ever done. It is not enough. We are failing and imploding as a profession, something you fail to make note of at all in your response.

    I frankly don't give a rat’s arse if the annual pilgrimage of the SfN Presidents to the Hill happens if nothing comes of it. And nothing is coming of it. Maybe Steve Hyman will show some solid brass balls next week and get up there and make a heartfelt moving plea to Congress telling them they are killing labs, delaying cures and setting back technological innovation and economic growth by failing to fund STEM.

    You say that "For more than a decade, SfN has consistently advocated strongly for increased funding for research; just this week, the Society joined Research!America in calling for a 10% increase for NIH." This is meaningless, as neither group has gotten the job done. Advocacy is not just stating what you want; it is forcing an agenda that effects change. If citing the last decade of pleas for increasing NIH funding as evidence of the power of SfN's lobbying efforts, then well, you've sort of sucked. And its time to change the way we do business.

    So please, spare me the links and the paternalistic, 'here's how you can help' chatter. Do I want you to step down from your post? No. But don't come here with rose colored glasses and assumptions that we just need the link to sign the petition and hope we will all feel well cared for by SfN or any of the other groups that have been in the trenches.

    I give you total love for your efforts (truly), but asking folks to 'keep on paddling' shows a mind numbing lack of where we are at as a profession.

  • LincolnX says:

    I feel like nothing short of taking to the streets in protest will change the status quo. I've met Dr. Collins and he's a nice and earnest man, and I think he's tried - I feel if congress were going to listen to anyone it might be him.

    I've also been to the Hill, engaged positively with my representative. I'm friendly too - reasonable, and full of great talking points about the importance of research and the economic benefits of it.

    The SfN advocacy group is well-meaning, and they have fielded the best strategies available to them.

    But you have to ask, where are we? Nice hasn't worked. Maybe what's needed now is a little less nice.

  • Mytchondria says:

    I'm you're person for less nice. A day walk out is on my mind. Have Berg crunch some numbers on lost research productivity in the last decade..... Have Drug Monkey put together some banners. With glitter. Or two of the three.

  • panchophd says:

    Society for Neuroscience was in Washington, DC this past year. How many of the attendees met with their representatives/Senators? How many contacted them to tell them all of the great things they were up to in the lab. How many invited them to the meeting? We are told to get to know the program officers at NIH. Why wouldn't we want to do that with our reps?

    I didn't. I should have. Missed opportunity. I will next time.

    Also, why do we have to indicate what congressional district we're in on our NIH grant applications? Let's put that to use.

  • panchophd says:

    Also, write your reps a letter. Say hi! They don't know we exist....

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    SfN will be back in DC in 2017 - how about a 25K-person march?

  • rxnm says:

    Evidence of advocacy isn't 10 fucking committees of Boomers high fiving and giving each other plaques at photo ops. Evidence of advocacy is results.

    How about the annual meeting include fewer plenary victory lap snoozefests and more focus on strategy and activism that benefits the next generation?

    The saddest, emptiest, worst thing at SfN is the NeuroJobs "fair." The second saddest is watching people grovel in funders' row.

    If you're out of ideas, go take acid and look at waterfalls with Francis. There is untapped energy that has been waiting 20 years for its turn to lead.

  • rxnm says:

    "you do not need some banner program to "sell" to Congress when you have the fraying fabric of our great scientific enterprise to display."

    but a banner rallies the powerful people who will personally benefit more from shiny new largesse than from improving the system for everyone.

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  • Horace Boothroyd III says:

    I don't know. Sam Harris has inflicted terrible harm on the reputation of neuroscience, what with his bigotry and his flamethrower of hate. More advocates like him you do not need.

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  • Shannon Farris says:

    Although I agree with the main points listed in the blog as well as Bill Martin's reply, I want to underscore the fact that it is not society presidents who need to get involved and speak up, it is us, the scientists. It's our profession and Congress does not know what's important unless we tell them (need I mention the attack on NSF funded research). However, Congress people only care about what their constituents and districts care about, not necessarily about what society presidents say. So I urge all scientists to go tell your elected officials why they should care about sufficiently funding science. Say your vote depends on it. And then go tell all your scientist friends to do the same. Societies can unify our voice, but it is up to us to amply it.

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