Much discussion surrounds the question of the most appropriate strategies for bringing the power of science to bear on the nation’s pressing problems. Some problems, such as an emerging infectious disease, are urgent and must be addressed immediately. Others, such as the increasing global burden of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases as populations grow older, become apparent with time but can be just as pressing in their implications. Advances in science and technology are often critical for progress, and circumstances can make it imperative for major science-based initiatives to deal with problems. We argue here that now is the right time for a substantial science-based assault on disorders of the brain. Our thesis is based on the conjunction of a growing worldwide societal burden of brain disorders with scientific opportunity driven by the maturing of neuroscience and related disciplines, by the recent and continuing emergence of relevant tools and technologies, and by the quality and number of personnel in the field.
There is no simple recipe for the planning and conduct of science-based initiatives that would ensure advances in both scientific progress and their application to societal problems. Much, however, has been learned from prior science initiatives. The temptation is always great, particularly when funding is constrained, to focus research funding in explicit or targeted ways, specifying in detail the exact problems to be solved and even the research approach to be taken. But the history of American science shows that stipulation of details can be counterproductive. What has generally been proved most effective is a combination of approaches to the support of research and development that involves diverse strategies. Moreover, it should be emphasized that increased funding, although almost always a necessary condition for progress, will not by itself yield solutions to critical problems. The science must be tractable—even if difficult—and there must be an appropriate workforce in the field in question or workers willing to enter from related fields. Both those conditions prevailed in the response to HIV/AIDS that began in the 1990s.
In addition to substantial increments in funding, policy and regulatory initiatives may be required to advance relevant science and to apply it effectively to the pressing problems that motivated the investment. Policy initiatives involving regulatory and possibly legislative bodies, the academic and industrial sectors, and journal publishers can markedly increase the likelihood of successful research and societal outcomes. Examples include the sharing of data (in conjunction with appropriate ways of protecting the privacy of individuals), the sharing of methods and key reagents by scientists, increased incentives for scientific rigor (as opposed to premature publication), and decreased barriers to partnerships between academic and industrial researchers that address the issue of conflicts of interest.