Developing the 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan

Developing the 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan

 

Mission

The mission of NINDS is to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.

Strategic Goals

Telescope thumbnail  Be a model of excellence for supporting and performing significant, innovative, and rigorous neuroscience research.

Workforce diversity thumbnail  Be a model of excellence for funding and conducting neuroscience research training and career development programs and ensuring a vibrant, talented, and diverse neuroscience work force.

Megaphone thumbnail  Promote dynamic communication and stakeholder engagement to accelerate scientific progress and reduce the burden of neurological disorders.

All hands thumbnail  Create and sustain a supportive work culture for the NINDS workforce that becomes the model for biomedical research and the neuroscience community.

Strategic Planning Taskforces

The four broad strategic goals set the overall direction for this strategic planning effort. Five internal taskforces composed of intramural and extramural NINDS and NIH staff are leading the effort to develop detailed objectives and outline the roadmap for NINDS to achieve these overarching goals over the course of the next ~5-10 years. Each taskforce is conducting their work in collaboration with internal and external stakeholders, beginning with a broad call for public into through an initial RFI (see below). In 2020, taskforces will engage in additional planning and stakeholder engagement activities.

This graphic depicts the 5 taskforces, composed of intramural and extramural NINDS and NIH staff are leading planning and stakeholder engagement activities.

Input to the Strategic Plan

As a first step of the new strategic planning process, NINDS conducted an initial RFI (NOT-NS-19-079.html) from July to November 2019. The deadline has now passed, but you may submit your perspectives to NINDS by emailing NINDSStrategicPlan@nih.gov. Responses submitted in 2019 were included in this Summary of RFI Responses (pdf, 392 kb).

Please watch this page for other opportunities to engage with the NINDS Strategic Planning process.

Draft Preliminary Objectives

At the Open Session of May 2020 National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NANDSC) Council, Dr. Nina Schor presented (starts at 2:12:00 mark) the draft, preliminary objectives under each Strategic Goal. We welcome any comments on this draft by email at NINDSStrategicPlan@nih.gov, and will continue to revise these into a full draft of the plan over the coming months.  Please click on each goal to read the underlying draft objectives.

Scientific advancement requires rigorous, creative, and high-quality studies that build upon validated prior discoveries. Many scientific studies, however, do not transparently describe the design, methods, or analysis of experiments so that others may adequately assess their quality. Potential flaws in the practice of science that cannot be gleaned from the literature undermine study conclusions and future research efforts. For this reason, NINDS programs and policies must ensure that studies are conducted rigorously and reported transparently.

The Office of Research Quality (ORQ) with the support of the NINDS Rigor Working Group (NRWG) has developed a framework for advancing rigorous research. This effort will include the formation of an educational platform on the principles of rigorous research as well as the establishment of networks of rigor champions who will contribute to the development of the educational platform and work together to change the culture of science to favor high quality research over novel but unsubstantiated findings.

Advances in science can present ethical challenges. Existing ethical frameworks may need to be contextually-specified and interpreted as science moves forward. For neuroscience, this can be especially trenchant given the brain’s centrality to fundamental aspects of ourselves. Neuroethics (a specialization of bioethics that focuses on neuroscience) can serve as a disciplinary partner to neuroscience, to help scan the horizon for ethical challenges, identify and explore the underlying values and assumptions of a variety of stakeholders, and assist in mitigating and navigating potential ethical concerns. As such, neuroethics can empower neuroscience research and help inform how we design, conduct, interpret, and apply research.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative has a robust neuroethics component that includes a neuroethics research portfolio and an NIH-external Neuroethics Working Group that serves to provide BRAIN with input relating to neuroethics. Building on this effort, NINDS has established a new NINDS Neuroethics Program that will work with NIH staff and stakeholders to identify and navigate ethical challenges and implications of neuroscience research programs and discoveries, and to facilitate neuroscience progress.

NIH is the primary funder of basic neuroscience research, which seeks fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and serves as foundation for long-term progress against neurological diseases. Given the paucity of support for this type of research from the private sector, it is imperative for NINDS to continue to sustain fundamental basic neuroscience research on the healthy and disordered brain and nervous system.

NINDS will continue to support investigator-initiated, robust peer-reviewed research, which is the foundation of the basic research program, and will also continue to evaluate whether existing grant mechanisms meet the needs of the basic research community to ensure a vibrant and healthy basic research enterprise.

Currently, NINDS supports translational research (applied preclinical development) through traditional investigator-initiated programs, a variety of targeted initiatives, and programs in the Division of Translational Research (DTR). A suite of DTR programs enables scientists to advance potential drug, device, and biologic therapies to readiness for the clinic or to “de-risk” further development, enabling handoff to the private sector for further development. NINDS will continue to support, improve, and develop programs and key tools to facilitate translation, such as validated animal models and biomarkers.

Human subjects research studies, including observational studies and clinical trials of interventions, aim to identify disease prevention strategies, develop new treatments, and improve clinical practice. However, these studies are often very expensive, both in terms of dollars and staff time, and are challenging to design and conduct, because of their complexity and the ethical imperatives of this research. NINDS will identify gaps and opportunities that the Institute is uniquely suited to fill, and foster innovation to enhance the efficiency and impact of human subjects research.

Neurological conditions affect people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and genders, and can differentially affect individuals based upon geographic, socioeconomic or other factors. The NINDS is committed to understanding and developing treatments for neurological conditions across the lifespan and to reducing the burden of neurological disease borne by underserved groups of society, including racial and ethnic minority, rural, and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, by funding a spectrum of research from basic science through clinical studies.

Powerful new technological research capabilities are emerging from NIH investments, most notably the BRAIN Initiative. To maximize the effectiveness of all NINDS research, the Institute must ensure that these capabilities are maximally disseminated and widely available. Furthermore, a growing proportion of the NINDS budget is being directed for special programs including the BRAIN Initiative, HEAL, and ADRD research. NINDS should ensure the coordinated management of these investments across Institutes and trans-NIH programs to maximize impact and efficiency.

The NIH draft policy on data sharing noted “sharing scientific data helps validate research results, enables researchers to combine data types to strengthen analyses, facilitates reuse of hard to generate data or data from limited sources, and accelerates ideas for future research inquiries.” As NIH implements this policy, which requires all NIH funded research to include data management and sharing plans, the amount, emphasis, complexity, and cost of creating, curating, harmonizing, storing, accessing, and reusing neuroscience data will grow substantially in the next 5-10 years.NINDS will develop data sharing policies and resources to maximize the opportunities and cost effectiveness of its research investments.

To carry out its mission, NINDS supports small to large-scale research efforts, collaborations and team science across the full spectrum of basic, translational, and clinical research. NINDS currently has a mix of Investigator-initiated and Institute-solicited funding opportunities. NINDS will continue to examine whether the funding mechanisms in use optimally support the many different kinds of research that the Institute funds, including whether current mechanisms are optimal to support research opportunities of broad scope and complexity that may require an altogether different team science approach.

Monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of programs (e.g., NINDS funding opportunities and initiatives) and policies (e.g. early investigator preferences, administrative cuts) is essential to ensure good stewardship and to improve effectiveness. Defining up front how NINDS will evaluate a program or policy also encourages the Institute to clarify the goals at the outset. NINDS will systematically monitor and evaluate, programs and policies and will periodically modify programs based upon the outcome(s) of those evaluations.

Because it is not tethered to extramural grant review cycles, NINDS Intramural Research Program (IRP) is in a unique position to capitalize on both long-term and high-risk, high-reward science that is more difficult for the extramural community to undertake. Additionally, the flexibility of the intramural funding structure allows the NINDS IRP to rapidly respond during public health emergencies. To fully realize its potential, NINDS will identify areas of science and scientific resources that should be augmented within the NINDS, enhance clinical care within NINDS, increase collaboration across the basic to clinical spectrum and with other Institutes and extramural researchers, and ensure that evaluations of faculty, staff, and trainees reward high quality, innovative research and excellence in training and mentoring.

SCIENTIFIC TRAINING

Scientific advances often occur when investigators can recognize the relevance of discoveries made in an entirely different discipline. Moreover, investigators will often be best positioned to make important discoveries when they understand the uses of a wide array of methods and technologies. Therefore, training in neuroscience research must extend beyond proficiency in an individual line of study so that investigators are prepared to take on new directions, adopt and develop new approaches, and work collaboratively and in teams to share expertise and resources. Consequently, NINDS will continue to empower the research community to direct training to areas of need and opportunity as well as incentivize broad training in both content and technology that will seed innovation, collaboration, and novel discoveries. NINDS will also implement strategies for developing or supporting training in data science and other cross-cutting or emerging approaches with the potential for wide-ranging application to neuroscience research. NINDS supports and provides training across the spectrum from fundamental basic science to translational and clinical research and must continue to align programs to unique and evolving training needs and challenges in these areas. Finally, NINDS will work to enhance communication about programs and policies for research training.

SCIENTIFIC TRAINING

Rigor in scientific research, sound experimental design, and quantitative analytical methods are essential to continued progress in neuroscience. NINDS has championed efforts to promote rigor in the biomedical research community and has requirements in its institutional training programs and postdoctoral fellowship for strong training in principles of experimental design, statistical methodology, quantitative skills and literacy, and principles of rigorous research. However, opportunities remain for strengthening and expanding these efforts across neuroscience research training within both the extramural community and the NINDS Division of Intramural Research. In particular, improvement in the rigor of scientific research by faculty may be effectively accomplished through training mechanisms. In addition, there are opportunities to improve, develop, and disseminate resources to facilitate training in these areas and to monitor and assess the impact of our efforts.  Also see Objective 1.1.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION

NIH’s ability to help the nation remain a global leader in scientific discovery and innovation depends on a pool of highly talented scientists from diverse backgrounds. A growing body of research shows that teams comprised of people from varying backgrounds and experiences working together outperform homogenous teams. NINDS has long recognized that achieving diversity in the neuroscience and biomedical research workforce is critical to realize our research goals. The Office of Programs to Enhance Neuroscience Workforce Diversity (OPEN) coordinates NINDS extramural diversity activities, spanning the training pipeline from innovative neuroscience education outreach to funding opportunities and mentoring networks across critical career transition points. Additionally, the NINDS Division of Intramural Research coordinates and participates in programs that bring diverse students and research trainees to intramural NIH laboratories for research training experiences in neuroscience. However, gaps remain for improving diversity, including for racial/ethnic diversity at the level of NIH research project funding (R01s) and NINDS intramural faculty, which may result from multiple complex biases and disparities that create disadvantages to career success. To address these challenges, NINDS will enhance its diversity and inclusion efforts by implementing strategies that reduce barriers to career advancement for vulnerable and marginalized researchers and support increased diversity across all programs and career stages.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION

A diverse research workforce engages different perspectives, creativity, and individual enterprise to address complex scientific problems. However, retaining diverse talent will require environments that embrace and value different perspectives and contributions. In order to tap into the full potential of an increasingly diverse workforce, NINDS must also support and promote inclusion – active, intentional, and ongoing engagement that increases cultural competence and awareness, empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions, and feelings of belonging. NINDS will implement strategies to promote inclusivity in intramural and extramural environments, integrate diversity and inclusion goals in processes and programs that are not just diversity-targeted, and provide opportunities for training that expands the awareness and knowledge of barriers to diversity and inclusion.

MENTORSHIP

Scientists consistently rate great mentorship as the most important factor in their success. Likewise, good mentors know that strong mentorship benefits their own research and science overall, as well-trained individuals with intellectual investment and confidence to take on challenges will be more creative and productive. Mentors pass on scientific wisdom, advise on designing experiments and analyzing data, and help trainees decide when to continue a difficult project. They give mentees opportunities to become known in the scientific community, help them learn to obtain funding and communicate with journal reviewers and editors, and support them in exploring career paths and navigating transitions. Mentees, too, have important roles and responsibilities in successful mentoring relationships. Broadly, effective mentorship helps mentees mature intellectually and professionally, develop and maintain confidence, and persevere in the face of obstacles. For all these reasons, mentorship is also critical for enhancing workforce diversity. NINDS emphasizes the need for strong mentorship in national, institutional, and individual training programs and has invested in programs and resources that support effective mentorship practices and relationships. Recently, NINDS created the Landis Award for Mentorship to bestow prestige, backed by significant funding, to investigators who show devotion to outstanding mentorship in addition to running a rigorous research program. However, NINDS must continue to grow programs and develop creative approaches to ensuring that the entire workforce has access to superior mentorship. These approaches must be comprehensive and include efforts to incentivize excellent mentorship, strengthen mentorship training for mentors and mentees, and communicate the value of mentorship to scientists, institutional administrators, and all members of the neuroscience research community.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Professional readiness and success for the neuroscience workforce depend on more than scientific knowledge and research skills. In recent years and pioneered by efforts such as the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) initiative, training programs in biomedical research have embraced the importance of professional development encompassing areas such as communication, leadership, management, networking, and exposure to a variety of potential career paths. NINDS encourages strong commitments to professional development in its extramural programs for training and career development and supplements activities offered by funded institutions with workshops and other events for trainees, mentors, and training program directors. The NINDS intramural research community also has access to many resources for professional and career development, including those provided through the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE). However, access to and participation in such activities can vary across institutions, programs, and lab or research groups; and opportunities for ongoing professional development may be limited outside of traditional training trajectories. In addition, NINDS recognizes that personal wellness and positive community culture are essential for enabling professional success. To strengthen professional development for the neuroscience workforce, NINDS will implement strategies to improve communication and coordination of existing programs and resources; support or develop new programs and resources; and partner with other NIH institutes, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations.

Achieving NINDS’s mission requires dynamic and sustained communication efforts about what we do, why we do it, and how our work and its products can benefit the health and wellbeing of all people. Several principles help guide NINDS’s communication and dissemination efforts:

  • Science isn’t finished until it’s clearly communicated
  • Communication is a powerful tool for transparency & accountability
  • Communication must be bi-directional – emphasis on partnership and collaboration
  • NINDS strives for fairness and equity in access to the Institute and to scientific and policy information
  • NINDS endeavors to be a trusted, go-to source of credible, timely information on neurological disorders
  • NINDS strives to rapidly disseminate scientific discovery and innovation to all stakeholders

NINDS’s Stakeholders

NINDS’s audiences are our stakeholders – those individuals and organizations who influence us and are affected by what we do. These include but are not limited to the research and health practice communities, patients and their caregivers, the general public, Congress and policymakers, other federal agencies, public and private partners, and the media. NINDS seeks to develop and refine communication strategies tailored to the varied needs of all our stakeholders.

3.1.1: Diversify our stakeholder interactions and better understand all stakeholders’ needs

NINDS regularly engages with different stakeholders and strives to understand their needs. Despite several successes, there are opportunities to build upon these efforts. Diversifying who we engage with in order to reach voices we may be missing is an especially high priority. NINDS will continue to plan and conduct ongoing outreach activities tailored to the needs of different stakeholders, while exploring new venues and mechanisms to enhance the breadth and diversity of input. 

3.1.2: Amplify messaging through traditional and emerging communication platforms and enhanced partnerships

NINDS utilizes a wide variety of communication tools and platforms, including websites, traditional media (e.g., press releases and science news articles), social media, digital and multimedia (e.g., podcasts, videos, and mobile apps), conference exhibits, public talks, and print brochures and publications, among others. Still, there are several opportunities to enhance how NINDS content is presented, packaged, and distributed through these platforms, as well as to explore emerging communication technologies that might help broaden our reach. One of the most efficient ways of expanding NINDS’s reach is to cultivate communication partnerships, leveraging the extensive social networks of our many stakeholders. To this end, NINDS collaborates with many professional societies, nonprofit organizations, and other federal agencies on various communication and engagement efforts. Opportunities exist, however, to strengthen and expand such partnerships.

3.1.3:  Systematically assess and evaluate communication efforts in order to refine and adopt the most effective approaches

NINDS uses web analytics and other tracking efforts to assess some aspects of our communication efforts; however, a more robust analytics approach and larger suite of metrics are needed to fully measure communication effectiveness. NINDS also appreciates the value of applying a more systematic approach to our assessment efforts, including identifying the goals and appropriate analytical methods prior to each communication and engagement effort. Having robust analytics is key to identifying knowledge and resource gaps and spurring new content strategies to improve engagement.

3.2.1: Engage diverse stakeholder communities on NINDS’s priorities and widely communicate funding opportunities.

Fulfilling the NINDS mission depends on accurate, timely, clear, equitable, and broad communication of scientific priorities and funding opportunities. NINDS routinely seeks input on research gaps and opportunities, most intensively through the NANDS Council and frequent disease-specific workshops and strategic planning efforts where insights and advice are provided by researchers, other subject matter experts, and the public. More can be done, however, to optimize how the Institute gathers and incorporates this critical input in a systematic way across the broad swath of NINDS’s mission areas. Additionally, once final decisions are made, we must ensure that they are clearly and broadly conveyed. For example, while all NIH funding opportunities (FOAs) are made public through the NIH Guide, the intent of those FOAs is not always clear without interpretation from NINDS staff. NINDS seeks to develop new strategies to ensure that the research community is fully aware of and has a strong voice in informing NINDS’s policies, funding opportunities and research priorities.

3.2.2: Communicate easy-to-understand information on NINDS policies, guidance, and decisions.

Understanding the “ins and out” of the grant application process and how to comply with award requirements is a complex undertaking. NINDS strives for an open-door policy to allow our research community to get the guidance they need. Extramural program staff field several types of questions on a regular basis (often via email and over the phone), including things like how to apply for a grant, the type and level of detail needed in applications, aspects of review including interpreting reviewer feedback, and recommending the next course of action (resubmission, different funding opportunity, etc.). While these ad-hoc communications can be quite effective, some applicants do not know the best way to engage with NINDS to get the answers they are looking for. To help anticipate and respond to applicant questions, NINDS seeks to improve how we communicate with researchers, especially those who have little to no prior experience submitting NIH proposals, in particular: trainees, new investigators, small businesses, and under-represented scientists.

3.3.1: Disseminate NINDS-supported knowledge, resources, and tools to enhance research capabilities and drive improvements in health practice.

Publications are just the first step in converting the outcomes of research into advances in knowledge and health. Translating NINDS-funded research into real-world impacts requires extensive communication and cooperation with numerous communities—in particular, with media outlets and reporters, medical and public health practitioners, NGOs, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, patients, and the broader public. NINDS will continue to vigorously disseminate research findings, while also cultivating new, impactful dissemination channels. In addition to new knowledge, NINDS’s investments also yield research infrastructure, tools, reagents, data sets, and innovative technologies, which in many ways are even harder to disseminate than research articles. The exchange of these resources among researchers and health practitioners, however, is crucial to supporting a steady pace of progress and implementation of knowledge into care.

3.3.2: Increase the public’s understanding of neuroscience through educational engagement and provide trustworthy information on neurological disorders and stroke

NINDS employs several initiatives to communicate health information that patients and caregivers need, as well as to educate the public on neuroscience research and the importance of brain health. For example, NINDS provides public health information for over 250 neurological diseases and develops science education materials such as Brain Basics, interactive educational games, and printed materials on public health and other NINDS-related content. We will continue and expand these educational efforts aimed at fostering interest in neuroscience and knowledge of neurobiology across all ages.

3.3.3: Promote stakeholders’ understanding of the mission and value of NIH and NINDS

NINDS must be able to clearly show how our research investments on behalf of American taxpayers have yielded (and will continue to yield) tangible health benefits, both domestically and globally. This is especially complicated by the fact that NINDS cannot realize our full value without the extensive work of others, including: other NIH Institutes and Centers, other research funders, policymakers, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, regulators, health practitioners, and the public. NINDS regularly highlights our role in research advances and their implications for health through a variety of channels. We seek to build on these efforts and develop even more compelling ways to communicate what we do, and how we interface with other integral components of the biomedical enterprise to accomplish our mission. 

NINDS supports an environment that enables high performance in the pursuit of the NINDS mission so that staff at all levels and in all roles can carry out their work with a high level of engagement, while fostering trust and respect among all and operating in a respectful and inclusive environment. Our core workplace values include: accountability; autonomy; collaboration; commitment to science; drive; intellectual curiosity; respect; resilience; rigor; service; stakeholder engagement; stewardship; work-life integration.

Sound performance management sets a strong foundation upon which good morale and productivity can be built. It is crucial to have fair and transparent processes and structure that are clearly communicated to all levels of the organization so that employee engagement and interactions can result in more solutions and less frustration. This objective is about how the work at NINDS and the entire NINDS as an organization are managed.

Positive workplace environment enhances productivity and vice versa. A positive and productive workplace environment includes an environment where everyone is treated in a respectful manner and feels included in the NINDS community. It also includes a culture in which everyone’s voice is heard and open communication comes naturally, as well as a culture of finding creative solutions together rather than one that rejects new ideas. This objective is about how NINDS can improve how its members behave at a community level.

In striving towards a “one NINDS,” where effective communication occurs at all levels and parts of the Institute, clear lines of communication must be established, and relevant information should be shared in a timely manner. Silos within the organization should be identified and broken down to stimulate opportunities for more effective collaboration and peer support. If silos must exist (e.g. for compliance reasons), NINDS leadership should make sure that staff in the silo and the rest of the organization are connecting to the highest extent possible. This objective is about how NINDS can better facilitate how its members work with one another.

To attract and maintain good talent at NINDS, it is important to foster a culture that cares about each individual’s satisfaction and challenges him/her to grow professionally. This would include support for work-life integration and opportunities for career development and training through compassion and empathy, mechanisms to incentivize career growth, and effective communication of available resources. This objective is about investing in each NINDS member to improve work experience at an individual level.