A Framing Dilema: Disease versus Discovery

[Authors Note: this post starts out as a relatively reasonable consideration of a question, but later morphs into a personal flight of fancy. Feel free to contemplate either the reality or the fantasy or both, as I will be doing.] What is the best way to prompt financial donations to research?

As a graduate student this isn't a question I have had much cause to consider. But yesterday, while meeting with a certain professor in whose lab I have been rotating, the subject was mentioned. Before returning to more pressing topics (aka the current status of my experiments), we talked about the need to develop for neuroscience a fundraising infrastructure similar to that possessed by cancer research. Cancer research, in addition to receiving federal funding from institutions such as the NIH is also fed money by fundraising organizations that appeal for research money directly to public citizens. Setting up a similar situation for neuroscience would not only serve to secure greater funding for research, but would also increase public perception of neuroscience research. Altogether, a win-win situation for neuroscience researchers.

However, my first reaction to the idea was one of skepticism. In my mind, cancer research holds an advantage in the fundraising area in that it seeks to actively cure a disease that the general public can intimately relate to. Most of the potential donators will have either experienced cancer first-hand, or will be only several degrees of separation away from someone who has. Diseases of the brain and potentially much more rare, or at least are more varied, less easily gathered under a single disease name. Cancers of every cell in the body, those possessing individual names, are still ultimately called cancer; the same is not true for diseases of the brain. Surely, I said to the professor, a successful fundraising campaign would require an overarching theme with which an individual citizen could intimately connect; not being the study of a umbrella disease like cancer, would neuroscience be able to generate a unifying principle that could engage the public, convincing them of the desperate need for their donations?

The professor responded that neuroscience didn't need to be about a disease, that the potential for making fundamental discoveries about how the human mind functions is more than enough to engage the public and drive a fundraising campaign. He pointed out that at its heart, cancer research is research about cell division, and that framed as such, neuroscience research has the potential to sound way more sexy, given a carefully considered series of catch-phrases. I freely admit that I never considered cancer research as the study of cell division. As someone intimately connected to the disease (and therefore exposed since an early age to cancer research fundraising campaigns), I have always contemplated the cancer research fundraising as a way to fund breaking research into therapies. But as a research scientist, I know full well that some of the money raised will go to answering basic science questions (such as those of cell division). The success of the cancer research fundraising campaigns is perhaps due to their ability to frame a wide field of research as aspects of an identifiable "enemy". A winning strategy to be sure - but must neuroscience do the same?

Over the past day I've been considering how else to push the need to fund neuroscience research without wielding the shadow of a disease. During the conversation that kicked off this introspective, I was reminded that neuroscience research is seeking to answer fundamental questions about how the brain works. Encapsulated within neuroscience research are questions about how humans sense our world, how we interact with our physical surroundings, and how the neurons (and glia) that compose are brain are capable of generating the realm of human consciousness and experience. Fundamental questions indeed. And in contemplating the enormity of the questions still unanswered in neuroscience I begin to wonder whether the enormity of our ignorance is enough to captivate the public (and, of course, to convince them to support the search for knowledge). Many fundraising slogans these days are derivatives of the theme of fighting a problem, helping people; these are powerful themes to motivate charity. But couldn't themes of discovery, finding the fundamental "how's" that define our individuality, be just as powerful motivators? Is neuroscience due for a introduction (reintroduction?) into public perception similar to that experienced by NASA during the height of the space race? Would attempting to convince more people that neuroscience research is an epic endeavor desirable for scientists? Could elevating the status of research encourage both increases in funding and draw more people to careers in science? I certainly don't know if such a reframing of neuroscience would be possible or successful, either monetarily or holistically. But with a firm personal belief that being as astronaut is just about the most awesome thing ever (a perception aided both by a youthful interest in the space race and a thorough exposure to the classic imagining of the future of astronomical discovery, aka Star Trek), I would love to see a future where a heightened public perception, and appreciation, of neuroscience research yielded both new knowledge and children who grew up dreaming not only of starships, but also of laboratories.

But returning to the original discussion, I'm left wondering which overarching themes in neuroscience research could be catch-phrased into the sorts of slogans appropriate for a P.R./fundraising campaign. Any thoughts?


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog