Several core strategies are important across all NINDS scientific goals and will be essential to implementation of the Strategic Plan.
NINDS Strategic Plan home » Cross-cutting Strategies
Table of Contents:
- Rigor and Transparency
- Investigator-initiated Research
- Diversity and Inclusion
- Team Science
- Data Sharing and Data Science
- Patient Engagement
- Technology Access
- Models for Neuroscience Research
- Collaboration and Partnership
- NINDS Intramural Research Program
Rigor and Transparency
Promote scientific rigor and transparency throughout all NINDS programs and policies
All scientific progress requires rigorous, creative, and high-quality studies that build upon validated prior discoveries. Many scientific reports, 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 evaluated based on published reports undermine future research efforts. To maximize the value of the taxpayers’ investment in our research, NINDS programs and policies must ensure that studies are conducted rigorously and reported transparently.
NINDS has been a leader within NIH and the research community in promoting rigor and transparency. In 2012, a major Institute workshop convened stakeholders from academia, industry, academic publishing, and government toward this end. That workshop, subsequent meetings, establishment of the NINDS Office of Research Quality (ORQ) and NINDS Rigor Working Group (NRWG), and several activities of this group have improved attention to rigor and transparency within NINDS, across the NIH, and in the research and publishing community.
Most recently, NINDS surveyed current training practices and convened a workshop that brought together subject matter experts capable of evaluating current educational practices to discuss how best to impart knowledge about the fundamental principles of rigorous research. Informed by this discussion, NINDS is developing a framework for advancing rigorous research that will include the formation of an educational platform on the principles of rigorous research as well as the establishment of networks of rigor champions in the research community 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 findings1.
NINDS is establishing communities of Rigor Champions to share resources and best practices for ensuring scientific research meets high standards of quality. Learn more about Rigor Champions and find rigor resources here.
Maintain an emphasis on investigator-initiated research, balancing short- and long-term investments, small and large-scale efforts, and revolutionary (high risk/high reward) and evolutionary (high quality, more incremental) approaches
NINDS will continue to rely primarily on investigator-initiated research to advance fundamental understanding of the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and neuromuscular system. Curiosity-driven, investigator-initiated research is especially well suited to supporting discovery research, which engages investigator’s insights about how the brain works and pursues new avenues revealed by unanticipated findings. There are myriad unsolved questions about the nervous system that research is unravelling at multiple levels of analysis, from molecules to the neural network dynamics underlying behavior of whole organisms, bringing to bear knowledge and methods from a wide spectrum of scientific, engineering, and medical disciplines. In this rapidly evolving landscape of opportunity, engaging the diverse perspectives and insights of thousands of scientists, engineers, and physicians to seek out the best opportunities to advance our understanding has been and continues to be the most effective path forward.
NINDS provides a variety of funding opportunities for investigator-initiated research with differing review criteria, funding levels, durations, component structures, and other characteristics designed to support small to large-scale research efforts, collaborations, and team science, including potentially “revolutionary” (high risk/high reward) research and “evolutionary” (high quality, more incremental) research that is also essential for progress. Similarly, the Institute supports both short-term, exploratory studies, and investigations which, by their nature, must be long-term investments. For example, the Research Program Award (R35) grants can extend for eight years and support an investigator’s overall research program rather than a discreet set of specific aims. Thus, the Research Program Award is especially suitable for innovative and long-term basic research.
Because individual investigators have historically driven progress, especially discovery research, in neuroscience, NINDS policies will maintain the vigor of the neuroscience research community, ensuring that as many laboratories as possible can be adequately supported. Investigators are especially vulnerable early in their careers, and NINDS will continue its aggressive policies (see, for example, funding strategies) to ensure that they have a fair chance. Similarly, the challenges of neuroscience dictate that NINDS must draw its workforce from the full breadth of the nation’s talent pool, as discussed in the training and diversity sections of this plan.
To support the development of biomarkers, preclinical development of therapies, and large clinical studies, NINDS often relies upon targeted funding announcements with review criteria and grant characteristics designed to meet the special needs of more applied research and development, including milestone-based funding. Although these programs rely upon solicitations, the Institute also designs many of these targeted funding opportunities with a similar spirit to traditional investigator-initiated discovery-oriented research programs by focusing not on specific disorders or approaches, but rather providing broad flexibility for investigators and teams to address needs within the NINDS mission and pursue the most promising opportunities for progress.
NINDS will continue to examine which funding mechanisms are effective for all types of research, including team science, and to modify these programs as warranted.
Diversity and Inclusion
Enhance the diversity and inclusiveness of our workplace and the neuroscience research workforce
NINDS has long recognized that achieving diversity in the neuroscience and biomedical research workforce is critical to realizing our research goals. Enhancing the diversity and inclusiveness of our workplace and the broader neuroscience and biomedical research workforce will enhance our overall creativity and ability to adapt. All of neuroscience benefits if we can engage all segments of society in our efforts to reduce the burden of illness due to neurological disorders and stroke.
As the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse, reflecting that diversity in the biomedical research workforce is vital to the scientific enterprise and the NIH research mission. Diversity affects performance, creativity, and other organizational drivers of success (see Science of Diversity articles), and there are compelling reasons for NINDS to promote a diverse workforce and increase participation by underrepresented groups such as identified in the NIH’s Interest in Diversity Notice. Advancing diversity is expected to produce several tangible and overlapping benefits, including the recruitment of the most talented researchers and staff from all groups; higher quality research and training environments; broader perspectives in setting research priorities; more people from diverse backgrounds participating in clinical research studies; and a greater capacity to address health disparities.
At NINDS, we view diversity, inclusion, and equity as cross-cutting issues that are an essential part of the way we work to fund, conduct, and support research. NINDS has a comprehensive strategy to enhance diversity at all stages of the biomedical research career trajectory which includes targeted training programs, an assessment of diverse perspectives in our select pay process, and an integrated approach to increasing workforce diversity across the Institute. Moreover, NINDS encourages activities to support diversity by all staff, throughout all corners of the Institute. To foster internal input and involvement, the Diversity Working Group (DWG), composed of program directors representing every scientific portfolio at NINDS, meets monthly to discuss issues related to diversity and to implement strategies for enhancing diversity in the neuroscience workforce. NINDS is also a committed partner in the NIH UNITE Initiative, an agency-wide effort to identify and address structural racism within the NIH and across the extramural scientific community.
Support innovative team science approaches for emerging research opportunities of broad scope and complexity
Progress has brought an ever-increasing knowledge base and armamentarium of technological capabilities to neuroscience. With this has come a trend toward increasing collaboration among scientists. To a large extent, researchers, as always, form temporary alliances to take on specific experimental challenges, and NINDS grants to individual investigators provide the flexibility to do so. For some types of research, such as clinical trials and drug development, team science has long been the norm, and NINDS has specific programs that address those needs. Team science has been less common in basic neuroscience research, although there are notable exceptions, including programs currently underway within the BRAIN Initiative® that bring together scientists and engineers from across several disciplines. NINDS is currently exploring programs to support team science that are underway across the NIH and beyond. The Institute is learning from these programs and assessing whether current NINDS grant mechanisms are optimal to support emerging research neuroscience opportunities of broad scope and complexity that may require a sustained team science approach. Beyond grant mechanisms, changes in the culture and reward systems of research may be necessary to fully realize the potential of team science to advance the NINDS mission, and the Institute will work with the research community toward that end.
NINDS is committed to maximizing the value and reuse of data generated by our programs and to training the workforce to utilize that data. For more information see the NIH Strategic Plan for Data Science.
Data Sharing and Data Science
Develop and implement policies, infrastructure, and resources to take advantage of data science and foster sharing of high value data among the research community
The NIH policy on data sharing notes that 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. Data science is increasingly important across the full spectrum of studies from basic research, in which new technologies are rapidly generating valuable data, though clinical research, in which tools and centralized databases facilitate team clinical science across institutions and investigators. 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. As data from emerging technologies grows in scale and more powerful analysis tools emerge, issues for the research community more broadly will have a major impact on the effectiveness of NINDS. Among these, for example, are ensuring appropriate rewards and credit for creating and sharing data; determining how best to take advantage of burgeoning progress in the related areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which Institute investigators are rapidly applying across many areas of basic and applied research; defining appropriate policies to preserve data privacy; and fostering a neuroscience workforce trained in cutting-edge data practices.
NINDS is currently developing an NINDS Data Science Plan, which will be aligned with the NIH Strategic Plan for Data Science and guide the Institute in developing data sharing principles, policies, infrastructure, and resources to maximize the opportunities and cost effectiveness of its research investments.
Identify and navigate ethical challenges and implications arising from neuroscience by supporting neuroethics resources for the neuroscience community and fostering research and training in neuroethics
Advances in science can present ethical challenges. Existing ethical frameworks may require interpretation in new contexts as science moves forward. For neuroscience, this can be especially trenchant because of the brain’s centrality to fundamental aspects of ourselves. As a specialization of bioethics that focuses on neuroscience, neuroethics can partner with neuroscience to scan the horizon for ethical challenges, identify and explore the underlying values and assumptions of diverse stakeholders, and assist in mitigating potential ethical concerns. Thus, neuroethics can empower neuroscience research and inform the design, conduct, interpretation, and application of research.
The BRAIN Initiative® has a robust neuroethics component that includes a neuroethics research portfolio and an NIH-external Neuroethics Working Group that serve to provide BRAIN with input relating to neuroethics. Building on this exemplar, 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.
Increase patient engagement in all appropriate aspects of NINDS research to better address the priorities of patients and their families and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research
NINDS will engage people with neurological conditions and their families in setting priorities, planning, and conducting research. The priorities of individuals living with neurological conditions and their families may not always be apparent to those not experiencing the problems that a disease presents For example, surveys of people with spinal cord injury have revealed that walking may not be the highest priority; individuals with Parkinson’s disease have stressed the importance of non-motor symptoms on their quality of life; and the epilepsy community has noted the impact of comorbidities, the side effects of current drugs, and the concern about Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP). Patient advocacy organizations also provide insight that can greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research, not only in recruiting for clinical studies, but also in many other aspects of studies involving human participants, including reducing barriers to participation.
NINDS has some important activities in place to support engagement, as discussed in the Communications section of this plan. Notably, the annual Nonprofit Forum is planned by a rotating Executive Committee that includes numerous patient advocacy groups. In 2020, the NIH HEALSM Initiative virtual workshop, “Engaging Patients in the Research Process,” explored the benefits for research of engaging people with neurological conditions in the planning and oversight of clinical research and patient recruitment for pain research, considering successful examples from other areas of medical research that are relevant across many areas of NINDS research. NINDS is committed to increasing patient engagement in all appropriate aspects of clinical research across all areas of the Institute’s mission.
NINDS is committed to increasing engagement of patients and their advocates to better address the priorities of patients and their families and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research.
Ensure that the researchers throughout the scientific community can exploit emerging technologies, resources, and knowledge, including those emerging from the BRAIN Initiative®
New technological research capabilities are emerging from NIH investments, most notably the BRAIN Initiative®. Among these, for example, are advanced microscopy methods, automated behavioral analysis tools, and large scale “-omics” analyses that can potentially be applied to many research questions but require substantial resources. To maximize the effectiveness of all NINDS research, the Institute must ensure that these capabilities are widely available. Furthermore, a growing proportion of the NINDS budget is directed to special programs including the BRAIN Initiative®, the NIH HEAL Initiative, and AD/ADRD research. NINDS will coordinate management of these investments to maximize impact and efficiency.
NINDS also will continue to provide scientific resources that enhance the capabilities of investigators to carry out high quality research, while minimizing unnecessary duplication of efforts and taking advantage of economies of scale. Current NINDS resources, for example, provide access to genetically modified mice, human post-mortem brain tissue and related biospecimens, genetic samples and cell lines, and validated monoclonal antibody reagents. As the scientific and technological landscape changes, the Institute must continually assess what resources are best provided centrally and which are more appropriately focused on individual laboratories or institutions.
Models for Neuroscience Research
Maintain support for the full spectrum of neuroscience research models
Looking back at the paths of discovery that led to successful therapies for neurological disorders reveals that a wide variety of experimental models were essential in their research and development. Humans and simpler organisms share many fundamental aspects of biology. Simpler organisms provide extraordinary opportunities for scientific investigations. For example, studies in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, revealed fundamental principles of genetics, and the worm C. elegans helps scientists understand neuronal development because it has only 302 nerve cells, which have been completely mapped, compared to the 80 billion nerve cells in the human brain. Similarly, genetic engineering has enabled scientists to study basic capabilities like memory and to model the mechanisms of key steps in disease by creating mice with the mutations that cause human disorders. For some types of studies, nonhuman primates are critical model organisms because of their anatomical, physiological, and behavioral similarity to humans. NINDS will continue to support research across the full spectrum of models, as appropriate to the scientific questions, with careful attention to ethical conduct of research and oversight frameworks. The Institute also will continue to support novel research approaches that may reduce the necessity for using animal models and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research. This includes, for example, research on cells and organoids derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells, computer modeling, and an array of technologies, including advanced imaging techniques, that can noninvasively study the structure, function, and biochemistry of the human brain.
Collaboration and Partnership
Fostering productive collaborations and partnerships in their many forms is a major strategic priority across all scientific goals, both with respect to NINDS programs and for research projects themselves
Collaborations and partnerships of many kinds are essential for advancing the NINDS mission and are becoming ever more crucial as science advances and reveals intersections between the interests of NINDS and other organizations, and among researchers with different areas of expertise. Integration among NINDS extramural programs is essential to ensure the seamless flow of insights among basic, preclinical, and clinical research. The Intramural Research Program provides an environment for collaborations across Institute, disciplinary, and basic/clinical boundaries that have historically been a strength of the program. The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research provides a framework for collaboration and coordination among the many parts of the NIH whose missions intersect the brain and nervous system. Among the many reasons for increasing collaboration of NINDS with all parts of NIH is a growing recognition of the importance of studying how the brain (and nervous system generally) influences and is influenced by other regulatory and organ systems in the body. NINDS has several long-standing collaborations with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other federal agencies. Beyond these ongoing relationships, the BRAIN Initiative®, Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM (HEAL) Initiative, Accelerating Medicines Partnership Parkinson’s Disease (AMP-PD), and other recent activities are paving the way for more productive interactions with industry, non-governmental organizations, agencies, and the broader medical community with which NINDS has less frequently collaborated.
The NINDS Intramural Research Program’s unique funding structure provides investigators with the stability, flexibility, synergistic environment, and resources to conduct distinctive long-term and high-risk, high-reward science. For more information, visit the NINDS Intramural Research Program.
NINDS Intramural Research Program
Exploit the NINDS Intramural Research Program’s unique capabilities to advance the NINDS mission
Because it is not tethered to extramural grant review cycles, the 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, the NINDS IRP is engaged in a detailed planning process to identify areas of science and scientific resources that should be augmented within the NINDS IRP; 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.
1 Koroshetz et al., Framework for advancing rigorous research, Elife eLife 2020;9:e55915 doi: 10.7554/eLife.55915