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Call for large-scale neuroscience effort

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

When the first human set foot on the surface of the moon in 1969, 125 million people, or roughly 62% of the population of the US, had their attention fixated on seeing the efforts of a nation-wide science and engineering objective come to fruition. This effort employed 400,000 people and 20,000 supporting organizations. This brings into view two critical observations, 1.) Look how many people can get excited about science! And 2.) When you throw a lot of people at a single focused goal, you can accomplish what once may have seemed unachievable. While the government funding and societal effort to achieve space travel has decreased dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s, they had a lasting effect. Children fantasize about becoming astronauts; adults in the US look at NASA with a surprising amount of consistent bipartisan reverence; science fiction focusing on space travel pervades the genre; and society as a whole views space travel and planetary colonization as part of humanity’s inevitable destiny.

Interestingly, not many kids or adults are seen jumping off their seats and daydreaming about launching nanosatellites into the human brain or discovering the intricacies of neural circuits and their dysfunction. However, just like space, the inner workings of our brain remain an enigma. Somewhat deceptively, understanding interactions at the tiny scale of cells and molecules and how these manifest into systemic behaviors and diseases also requires a massive collaborative science and engineering effort. This effort is presently ongoing, and is distributed globally across university research labs, government-funded institutions, philanthropic organizations, and biotech companies. While the progress in neuroscience has been remarkable over the past few decades, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s being pursued with the passion and focus of the world’s efforts in getting to the moon.

This is what we aim to change. We want to start a movement where people view the exploration of medical and biological mysteries as a mission of discovery and excitement. And, just like NASA was formed to catalyze the societal focus on space science, we want to catalyze this movement by starting a large-scale, collaborative, project-oriented institution focused on biomedical neuroscience research.

People involved in biomedical research often fall into two camps: either the researchers (in “academia”) who find funding and pursue their research interests, and the “industry” workers, who start or work for a startup or biotech/pharmaceutical company to realize some particular market needs. The downside to these two camps is that both are bounded in their freedom to solve specific biomedical problems: the researchers are limited to undertaking work that is small enough in scope to be handled by a few lab members, and the industry workers are limited to addressing the particular short-term market need that their company has decided to focus its efforts on.

Grandiose undertakings require grandiose efforts. It is not about any one particular individual or any particular lab. However, the predominant paradigm in research institutions is to uphold an academic structure where there is a single principal investigator and a dozen or so lab members pursuing a handful of focused projects. In contrast, the institution we propose will employ an organizational structure that revolves around a few ambitious projects and their needs. Instead of the bottom-up approach of “I am going to discover how this receptor works in the context of this disease and it might lead to understanding how to reduce the spread of neurodegeneration”, we want to approach it from the top-down: “We want to stop a glioblastoma before it grows, how do we do it?” This modus operandi is not unique; many researchers begin with a top-down motive. However, because of funding constraints and the need to establish independent, unique research, it becomes a necessity to pick a few elements from the bottom-up approach to pursue, with the hope that it will eventually satisfy the initial motive.

How do you circumvent this? Here, we take inspiration from NASA again. You let the institution decide on a few massive but tangible projects, and then orient the workforce and resources towards achieving those goals together.

Writing grants is one of the most time-consuming aspects of a researcher’s life. Based on some grant time estimates, a lab will put in up to 2,000 hours to apply for a $1 million/year grant. Keep in mind that institutions often take up to 50% of the grant money received, and only about 35% of NSF grants are accepted. This means about $250,000 of labor is spent for every $1 million in grants doled out, and this is on top of the administrative costs of the grant funding agency. Needless to say, changing this system would save a tremendous amount of time and allow individuals to channel more of their efforts into their work. Of course, project proposals can’t just go away - there need to be systems in place to ensure people are spending resources wisely. But, given the advances of today’s digital technologies, there’s no reason we can’t utilize more efficient methods for researcher to propose and get feedback on their methods (for example, check out the self-organized fund allocation idea).

Awarded grant money is further diluted into two buckets: doing the research, and getting it published in an impactful journal. Because of the pressure of attaining tenure, a good chunk of academics are consumed with publishing in high impact journals. It’s not a rarity to see someone obsessing about whether they see the “right” amount of significance between their experimental and control group, or working tirelessly because someone else could “scoop” them. We want individuals of this organization to be driven by their childhood dreams. “I want to understand the brain!” rather than “By employing this technology to various biological questions, I can publish 20 papers this year”. By eliminating the pressure to publish, individuals can focus on the bigger picture and work with others in a team-oriented manner. The pressure will now be on the team to achieve the bigger goal.

NASA’s outreach is impeccable; they have a powerful bond with the public. When people daydream about traveling to the stars, the spaceships of their dreams don the NASA logo. They offer a way for anyone interested to interact, play, and attain a sense of wonder from the images, videos, and digital simulations of their scientific findings and engineering. There is no place that does the same for neuroscience. We need to kindle a similar bond between brain research and the public, and to do this, we need a global institute dedicated to tackling today’s seemingly impossible neuroscience challenges.

When it comes to spreading ideas, be it through art, writing, or videos, there is a hesitation that one feels to only release that idea until it is has flourished to perfection. This website, this blog, this imperfect initiative is us overcoming that hesitation. It has to start somewhere.

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