The value of fundamental neuroscience cannot be overstated enough. Since the discoveries of Santiago Ramón y Cajal well over a century ago, basic neuroscience research has continuously advanced our understanding of the workings of the nervous system. Insights into normal development, structure, and function have advanced at an even faster pace in the 21st century, with astonishing and important discoveries emerging in areas ranging from subcellular mechanisms of action to brain networks. Beyond being one of the most central questions in science, fundamental neuroscience is the foundation for progress in preventing and treating all neurological disorders and maximizing human health.
The mission of NINDS – to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease – relies on basic research, which generates new knowledge, drives innovation, and underlies many therapeutic breakthroughs. To best achieve that mission, NINDS is listening to our communities to understand challenges and opportunities in fundamental neuroscience efforts through a Request for Information (RFI). This RFI, which will be open through June 1, 2022, invites input on how we canbest understand the basis of nervous system function, from the perspective of molecules, cells, circuits, and whole organ systems.
Almost a decade ago, NINDS began to analyze how its research funding was distributed across the spectrum of basic and applied studies. To perform this analysis, NINDS developed simple definitions of basic and applied research that could generally be applied in an unambiguous and reproducible way. Each of these categories was further divided into two subcategories—basic/basic, basic/disease-focused, applied/translational, and applied/clinical. Basic/basic research was defined as studies aimed at understanding the development, structure, and function of the normal nervous system whether performed in vitro, in animals, or in humans. It is synonymous with what we also refer to as "fundamental neuroscience (FN)" research. Significantly, NINDS observed a steady decline in the funding percentage of basic/basic neuroscience research from 1997 to 2014. While there are likely several factors contributing to this shift (e.g., new opportunities to study and treat specific neurological diseases), the need for and value of FN remains high.
To underscore the unique value of FN research, and to encourage new avenues of discovery, in 2016 NINDS issued Promoting Research in Basic Neuroscience, PAS-15-029 (and the 2018 reissue PAS 18-483). These program announcements provided additional funds to support 100% FN research projects that scored just beyond the payline. This effort was effective in supporting novel research projects, and part of a larger effort to foster all categories of FN research. Significantly, over the last several years, the NINDS funding percentage for FN research has stabilized, likely due to many factors including these program announcements, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and other forms of NINDS outreach.
Although the Basic Neuroscience program announcement recently expired, NINDS continues to be highly supportive of FN research, and this commitment has been reaffirmed in the new NINDS Strategic Plan. We are currently looking for additional ways to best foster FN research going forward, including establishing a webpage devoted to FN activities and providing new opportunities for community input. Looking ahead, we plan to complement external input by reviewing the literature, analyzing recent NIH research investments to identify strengths and gaps, and assessing the efforts of other relevant research funders and funding streams.
Collectively, these efforts demonstrate the value that NINDS places on research proposals in areas of FN that may not be directly applicable to human health or with potential unknown impacts on human health. I encourage you to submit a response to the RFI and to view the new webpage, which includes information on FN scientific resources and tools, an opportunity to share FN-related scientific images, and more. I introduced both of these resources at the most recent National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NANDSC) Council meeting. At that meeting, our advisory Council also approved a concept clearance on a new proposed interdisciplinary Team Science initiative. This program, which will utilize a RM1 mechanism, will support integrated and interdisciplinary efforts by three or more (up to six) investigators who will collaborate to pursue solutions to an ambitious research question or challenge.
We have learned from a century of research that fundamental neuroscience is the bedrock of scientific progress and a critical component of the NINDS mission. Ultimately, a more complete understanding of the development, the structure, and the function of the normal nervous system will benefit the entire neuroscience community for generations to come.