(Graduate School of Medicine and Faculty of Medicine Kyoto University)
From this January, I succeeded the Presidency of the Japan Neuroscience Society (JNS) from the excellent Dr. Keiji Tanaka. I will be honored to serve a three-year term from 2017 to 2019. Former presidents of the Society have made great achievements, and thus I feel a great responsibility to do my best to further develop the JNS with the support of the talented members of the society.
The development of neuroscience is reaching the age of full maturity. Recently, a great variety of superb and novel technologies have been developed. When I started my scientific career 30 years ago, I never dreamed that we would be able to study the brain at the great level of detail that these new developments allow. When I began as a graduate student, scientists of various fields were independently working on different pieces of the brain in relative isolation. The whole affair is reminiscent of the proverbial blind men, who try to describe the whole elephant by touching different parts of its body. Thirty years later, we can visualize the whole-brain network using neuroimaging, decode neural activity in real time to link large-scale neural activity to behavior, manipulate specific circuits via optogenetics and viral vectors, and perform more efficient gene engineering with genome-editing technologies. All these techniques give us a better understanding of brain function. As a consequence, mental processes that we did not consider to be the target of scientific studies, such as consciousness, long term memories, sociality, personality, and decision making, are now considered to be within the reach of scientific approaches. I am ecstatic to be able to work as a scientist in such a flourishing age.
However, the reality is, the number of members of the Society for Neuroscience has been decreasing over the last several years. The number of JNS members, which has until recently been constantly increasing, is now reaching a plateau, and there is a similar pattern in the number of participants at the annual meetings. As is well known, the number of scientific papers from Japan is gradually decreasing. Why? We often hear that the funding situation in the United States is getting worse, but, in Japan, funding to neuroscience has been maintained during the past 10 years owing to the effort by representatives of our community in government. However, the reduction of fundamental management expense grants to national universities and principal institutes like RIKEN may explain some of the trend of degradation. In addition, the declining population of youth in Japan, and the rumor that “scientists = working poor” might also have a negative impact on the motivation of young people to become scientists.
However, these are problems brought about from outside the field of Neuroscience. I am more worried about the problems brought about by the maturity of neuroscience itself. Because there are so many techniques available, a larger body of experimental data and evidence is necessary to satisfy reviewers that a hypothesis has been tested sufficiently. This is especially clear when one observes the large body of supplementary data that is necessarily included with papers in high profile journals. This is, in a sense, inevitable as science develops. However, under this trend, only the largest laboratories capable of integrating a variety of experiments can publish papers in high-impact journals. This trend is visible in other fields, such as physics, where expensive machines like the LHC or super-kamiokande are necessary to test basic hypotheses. This may be a sign that neuroscience is finally maturing to the strictness of other fields. However, this trend may also reflect an inflexibility in the field to accept good research that has limited scope, and this inflexibility may discourage young people entering the field. Although it is true that testing a hypothesis using many different techniques is important, using many different techniques to test hypotheses is not a magic key that will allow us to finally understand the brain. I cannot accept the situation in which the science declines through suffocating itself through over-maturation and overripe, when we are so close to understanding central aspects of the brain. In a young field, a young scientist, even if he/she does not have enough money and equipment, can boldly push forward novel concepts for understanding the brain with an original idea and competence, and test it with the best methods available to him/her. Other scientists with better equipment can test the hypothesis further if necessary. Myself included, many scientists find such “new idea” studies attractive even if they do not exhaustively use all the expensive tools currently available. Neuroscience should have such a cutting edge; even if neuroscience is on the way to becoming a “big science”, everyone still can have the opportunity to make original contributions purely based on his/her fresh “idea” and “competence”. To find, encourage, and cultivate these fresh “seeds” of science – this is necessary for neuroscience to remain an attractive field of science.
The principal mission of a scientific society is to provide its members with the place and opportunity to publish their data and interact with their peers. Therefore, advancement and reinforcement of domestic annual meetings are the most important issue for JNS. JNS set the policy of “all sessions in English” more than 10 years ago and has stuck with this policy despite criticism. Thanks to the “all-English” policy, the number of participants from abroad at the annual meetings has significantly increased, and the annual meeting has come to be viewed as an international congress rather than just a domestic meeting. Although the size of the JNS meeting is small compared to SfN or FENS, I often hear that the quality of research at the JNS meeting is as high as that of SfN or FENS. Under such circumstances, I would like to push forward the internationalization of JNS, especially locally in Asia, during my term. Recently, our neighbors, China and Korea, are developing rapidly. In fact, in the past year, JNS has worked with the Chinese and Korean Neuroscience Societies to propose biannual joint meetings in Asia, much like FENS is in Europe. With this, it is expected that the East Asia can form the third pole of neuroscience in the world, with North America and Europe. In doing so, we may be able to overcome the current membership and publication ceiling, and achieve further domestic scientific development. Importantly, these joint meetings will give important opportunities to come in contact with collaborators in the Asia region. If we neuroscientists can develop collaborative partnerships with neighbors with whom we politically have difficulties, it could be a strong incentive to put aside differences and achieve mutual understanding while advancing our common scientific goals. On the other hand, there has been concern that if we do not hold the domestic annual meeting, it may cause a huge financial loss to JNS. In light of these worries, the board of directors started discussing about the merit and demerit of having such joint congress, and how to respond to the proposal from China and Korea. In any case, this is a very important issue for the JNS and we welcome frank opinions from JNS members.
On the other hand, the role of the scientific societies nowadays is not limited to simply organize the annual meetings. We have to perform public outreach to promote understanding of the interest and importance of neuroscience by stakeholders and citizens. Interest and understanding of the importance of neuroscience lead to increases of funding to neuroscience. But, this cannot be best achieved by JNS alone. Four years ago, we founded the Union of Brain Science Associations of Japan, with a total of 19 neuroscience-related associations (currently 23 associations) to generate a “coherent voice” of neuroscientists. This was quite effective. Now, proposals issued by the Future Planning Committee of the Union, composed of representatives of individual societies, are often used as reference for discussion in the Brain Science Committee of the government and reflected in policy making. Thus, the importance of the Union is increasing, and it is my responsibility as the JNS president to make the Union be consistently supported by the individual members of JNS and achieve further sound development.
In addition, we need to establish an environment to better develop human resources in neuroscience in Japan and to better respect the diversity of members. We need to educate scientists to prevent scientific misconduct. We need to make responsible ethical policy to ensure the well-being of experimental animals and human subjects. All these are indispensable responsibilities that contemporary scientific societies must address in order to sustain development and maintain a good relationship with society. During my tenure, the leadership of the JNS will concretely advance these issues with the support of JNS members and make efforts for the brilliant future of neuroscience in Japan.