Much of science advocacy is local by nature, but it also has tremendous potential to bring neuroscientists together on a global scale.
In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Bill Martin, the president and chief operating officer of Blackthorn Therapeutics, traces the evolution of SfN’s role in global advocacy efforts throughout his time on its Government and Public Affairs Committee and continued involvement with the Society.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
In addition to the relationship between applied research and the science ecosystem at large, Martin discusses the successes of the BRAIN Initiative and development of new tools in its next phase, as well as the future of advocacy at SfN.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
Take our listener survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HWZN3W9
SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. William Martin, CEO of BlackThorn Therapeutics and a member of the Finance Committee. Dr. Martin has also served as chair of the Government and Public Affairs Committee and the Committee on Diversity as well as a member of the Neuroscience Scholars Program Advisory Board.
Taylor Johnson, SfN’s multimedia manager, talks with Dr. Martin over the phone about the evolution of the Society's involvement with global advocacy efforts, his time on the Government and Public Affairs Committee and Finance Committee, the BRAIN Initiative, and the future of advocacy at SfN.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E .org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Well, thank you, Dr. Swanson. My name's Taylor Johnson, and here we are with Dr. William J. Martin. He's the president and chief operating officer of BlackThorn Therapeutics out in San Francisco and the former chair of the Society for Neuroscience's Government and Public Affairs Committee. Dr. Martin, thank you so much for being here, really appreciate it.
MARTIN: Oh, it's my pleasure, Taylor. Thanks for having me.
JOHNSON: We're really excited to have you here, and we're going to talk about advocacy, the advocacy of neuroscience, and the Society's relationship with that. But before we into that, I was just wondering if you wouldn't mind giving us a primer on your academic training background and your core research.
MARTIN: Absolutely. I did my undergraduate research training at Swarthmore College, so a small liberal arts college outside of Pennsylvania, always with the intention of going to graduate school, and wound up pursuing my graduate career at Brown University, where I focused on understanding the relationship of cannabinoids — so these cannabis-like substances that were being identified at the time — and how they affected pain transmission.
Pain really was the kind of core part of my overall sort of research background. I then went over to the University of California at San Francisco, where I did my postdoctoral work at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience and again picked up a research area on looking at the sort of anatomy and physiology of pain transmission and modulation. It was the work that I did in trying to understand the sort of pain system that ultimately led me to shift my career from academia to industry.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. So actually just to touch on since you are a scientist in industry, I was curious how that has played into your perspective on advocacy in neuroscience or just your perspective on neuroscience in general, since of course a lot of the people that we’ve talked to are still in academia.
MARTIN: Absolutely. Well, I think being a scientist in industry, I mean the first thing I say is we start out still as all scientists. We train the same way, and so kind of to me, once a scientist, always a scientist.
But moving into industry to me was a reflection of an interest in what I would consider applied research. And the notion of applied research I think immediately kind of broadens one's perspective on the overall ecosystem. So how is it that research gets done, research gets funded, not just in a public sector, but in a private sector. And so that's something, I think, that's been with me from the beginning, even prior to my involvement with the Government and Public Affairs Committee. And it's certainly something that I've carried with me, relay this broader appreciation of the overall ecosystem and how I and overall scientific endeavors fit in within it.
JOHNSON: That's great. I'm sure we'll elaborate on that a little bit later, but also I thought before getting into advocacy and your Government and Public Affairs Committee chair tenure, I thought we'd start at the beginning of your involvement with SfN. Now you joined SfN in 1991?
MARTIN: You had to bring that up, Taylor. It's been that long. Yeah.
JOHNSON: I didn't mean it though, an illustrious career. And then I guess you were the Government and Public Affairs Committee chair from 2013 to 2018, right? You stopped last year, is that correct?
MARTIN: That's correct. Yes. And then prior to that I had served on a variety of other committees, both as chair and then separately, within GPA, I actually held a stint prior to being chair on that committee as well.
JOHNSON: Right. So you've actually had, there are quite a few different paths that took you from the beginning to the chair.
MARTIN: That's correct.
JOHNSON: Just curious, in terms of that past committee work and the various councils or membership that you were working on, how did that sort of prep you for being the Government and Public Affairs Committee chair? Or how did it lead you there, I should ask?
MARTIN: Well, a couple of things. I think the first, I was fortunate to have been involved in a couple of leadership initiatives. Again, having served as a committee chair, this was on the professional development side, it gave me some exposure to the overall sort of issues and challenges that SfN faced. Subsequently I moved on and had become a counselor, and so of course then I had this sort of highest-level kind of insight into how we organized ourselves, the role for volunteer leadership, and then specifically my role within that.
Along those lines we really started to see a shift in the demographics of the Society for Neuroscience where it's certainly a North American organization originally, primarily US-based, but about a decade or so I would say ago we started to see an increasing number of members from outside the US. I think that the sort of utility of that or the sort of benefit of that was we had to sort of broaden our perspective on advocacy. And so having seen this shift in the demographics, having seen neuroscience kind of becoming internationalized, I think that put me in a good position as I began to work with the Government and Public Affairs Committee and then ultimately as chair, to really kind of embrace those changes and actually see these as opportunities rather than threats.
JOHNSON: That's great. Were there some moments earlier on before you were actually the chair of the Government and Public Affairs Committee, were there moments and experiences with pure advocacy or something that sort of opened your eyes along the way? Obviously you took many different steps to get to the chair, but was there some sort of experience prior to that that sort of made you think about advocacy?
MARTIN: Well, I think the very first thing, I mean my introduction to volunteer leadership, I happened to be attending an event in Washington, DC in the ’90s and there was, I think, Senator Orrin Hatch was receiving an award. There were members of Society for Neuroscience who were there. I happened to know someone who was on staff and I went to this event. It struck me that here, Society for Neuroscience has an almost outsized potential to influence policy and direction of the science — how science is viewed within the country at that time — and happened to make an offhand comment, not recognizing I was speaking to someone who was a counselor, asking the question: Is SfN really applying its full weight behind the issues of the day? I think that's what first led into the volunteer leadership positions.
Be careful when you speak up — then you wind up being appointed to something. So that was the very first introduction that actually had an advocacy arm to it. And then subsequently in part because I lived in California, a very important state within overall federal funding and science in general. I attended several different Capitol Hill Days, so when one goes to Capitol Hill with other members of the Society for Neuroscience and other neuroscientists to advocate with policymakers about the importance of science in general and neuroscience specifically, and the role of investing in neuroscience research to really kind of catalyze growth and support growth of the country.
JOHNSON: So it really sounds like you had a lot of exposure prior to becoming the chair of the Government and Public Affairs Committee.
MARTIN: That's right, Taylor. My first appointment on the committee itself, one of the things that we picked up on, I mentioned the sort of internationalization of this work, is I wound up being one of the key representatives through a partnership with the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies to really begin to look at the role of advocacy outside the US. So we, through the Society for Neuroscience and Canadian Association for Neuroscience, sent representatives to Europe. We had a one-and-a-half-day or two-day meeting in Brussels, where we brought representatives from 24, 25 different neuroscience societies from within Europe, each one representing a particular country.
That's where one really started to get a sense of the importance of the local nature of advocacy. So we go from US-based, North American-based to on the one hand global — but when one says global, starting with Europe, it really was also recognizing the sort of issues that every country, every sort of member country of FENS, faced. And from SfN’s perspective, trying to get them the tools that were necessary to give them the ability to interact with policymakers and to educate policymakers around the issues of neuroscience and neuroscience research.
JOHNSON: That's really interesting. Do you find that in your experience and looking at it, it's very complex when we're looking at different countries and different governments, different issues and everything like that. When you go through different scales of advocacy, are there a lot of similarities running through, whether we're looking at local or state or provincial versus federal versus consortiums of different countries?
MARTIN: Well, the notion of scale, I think that's exactly right. I think the first principle is kind of meeting individuals and countries where they are. So in many instances, neuroscience might be the sort of first introduction to science that the public or policymakers would even have. We're fortunate to live in an age where there is a growing appreciation of the role of the brain in everything that we do, from wellness and health to, obviously, disease.
I think that that is one of the features that brings us together on a global scale, and I think having the ability to interact with policymakers and the public, even from small locales with relatively few resources, I think it's actually been very rewarding personally to sort of see the influence and also to see the traction that these neuroscientists gain within their local communities.
JOHNSON: So during your tenure as the chair of Government and Public Affairs Committee, obviously you experienced advocacy firsthand through that tenure, but I'm also curious that from that point, looking back over the development of advocacy and advocacy of neuroscience through the decades proceeding and, if you will, let's just imagine the past 50 years that SfN has been around. I was wondering if you had any comments on how that has changed over the past few decades leading up to right now?
MARTIN: Advocacy has changed over the years in several different dimensions. We touched on geography being one of them. We can certainly dig more deeply into that, but shifting from a US focus to a North American focus to European and then subsequently global. I think another big change is career stage. I think there was a time when advocacy was thought to be reserved for a few with gray hair, who would go and advocate on the Hill about the importance of NIH funding. And increasingly what we see with this generation is individuals really sort of taking charge of their career and recognizing that there's no longer an option of being a scientist without being an advocate, that actually these two are kind of intimately linked and that one needs to some extent control or influence one's own destiny.
So that's certainly been a big change. And then related to that, I think, is the scope of how we think about advocacy. So there's a time when advocacy was almost solely defined by science funding, and I think that's important, that's still relevant, but I think we've expanded beyond that to begin to have a role in a legislative issues, for example. So there's an advocacy network through which members can actually write their representatives to influence legislative actions. There's a shift in terms of public advocacy. So again, the education role and really kind of making sure the public is aware of the importance of brain and brain research.
And then the last thing I would say is this increasing presence through op-eds, for example, where scientists are not sitting on the sidelines but are getting out in front of issues and bringing these to the attention of the public.
JOHNSON: I think this is a good opportunity to maybe talk about the BRAIN Initiative, which I know was a piece of legislation that arrived right around your tenure, and I was wondering if you could speak to your involvement in it, but also your experience being chair during that time.
MARTIN: Absolutely. So the BRAIN Initiative, for those who don't know, is this amazingly ambitious public-private collaboration that was designed to bring forth new tools that would help revolutionize our understanding of the brain. I have very little in direct involvement with it, but I can speak to some of the work we did on the Hill, on Capitol Hill, really advocating with representatives to get them on board with, hey, wouldn't you like to be associated with a 21st-century initiative that breaks down barriers, that really recognizes that there's an interface between, again, public and private, where investments in the public sector can actually be leveraged and amplified by investments in the private sector? So we had several different meetings with representatives on Capitol Hill and within SfN, and we had meetings with representatives from the Office of Science, Technology and Policy at the White House.
All of which I think kind of coalesced in this BRAIN initiative, which at the time, I don't know that everyone understood the potential impact of it, but subsequently I think we've seen it. Certainly I've seen it as being very successful, again, bringing neuroscience to sort of the technical age, if you will, and actually recognizing that if we're going to understand the most complex organ in the body, we're going to need new approaches and new people. This is important, new people to actually work on these problems. And I think that's the success of the BRAIN Initiative.
JOHNSON: And how do you see that going forward from this point, the BRAIN Initiative specifically, in terms of the next, let's say, few years or next five to 10 years?
MARTIN: Well, maybe on a personal note, about four years ago or so, I started BlackThorn Therapeutics with the idea that it was time to apply the tools of the age to understand the brain and develop new therapies for mental health disorders. Many of the tools that we're talking about are advances in neuroimaging, advances in high-performance computing. And so to me, I'm a living example, me and the folks that I work with, a living example of the power of the BRAIN Initiative. I think the next phase of that is actually continuing to develop new methodologies, continuing to develop tools that allow us to generate insights, without which we really could not make progress, scientific progress, that's going to be at the foundation of a kind of 21st-century health and well-being.
JOHNSON: Great. That's great on the BRAIN Initiative. Let's kind of refocus a bit to the Society for Neuroscience in terms of how the Society itself has been involved with the advocacy for neuroscience in general, but sort of its development over, let's say, the past 50 years and sort of right up to the point where you were the chair of the GPA.
MARTIN: Absolutely. Well I think that the first thing one recognizes is, I touched on it a little bit earlier, is really that the Society for Neuroscience began to see its kind of full influence by shifting from a solely US-based or solely North American-based, to an international kind of global society. And I think within that you see the structure that allows one to identify the points of the ecosystem that need to be reinforced and developed, that are actually critical for scientific progress, critical for progress around education.
And so I'm really proud to have been part of this kind of maturation, if you will, where we, the Society for Neuroscience, has kind of redefined the committee structure, the leadership structure, embraced a diversity of leaders in all sorts of meanings of the word, bringing in folks from industry, folks of different backgrounds, folks of different scientific backgrounds, all of whom come together around these common principles. And I think within that, advocacy shifted from being something that was a kind of a nice-to-have, sort of side thought, again, focused purely on Capitol Hill events, and actually became something that was fully integrated within the Society for Neuroscience's activities. It became almost a nucleus. If you look at the scope of the advocacy activities that SfN undertakes right now, it's far greater today than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
JOHNSON: Right. And kind of from what you're saying, you've been talking a lot about how the role of advocacy falls on the scientist and with science and they're kind of, it's almost one and the same, this agent of change and progress in terms of the advocacy. I'm curious how you see that developing going forward.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things I'm most proud of is during my time as chair, we put together, again, let's look at where the sort of shifts are happening and seek to amplify the power of the shifts that we talked about: the geographic shift, we talked a little bit about the shift of career stage. So we saw more and more younger scientists interested in advocacy and we put in place a program called the Early Career Policy Ambassadors Program, which is a fantastic way for individuals to really develop the tools at a local level that can be taken to a national level, to become sort of citizen scientists, citizen advocates. It's about a one-year program, always highly oversubscribed in terms of the number of applicants. It's a very prestigious recognition for those individuals who submit proposals about the role that advocacy will play in their local communities and then present the kind of output of those about a year later.
So I'm really pleased that we were able to formalize that, and what it does is it really seeds this next generation of individuals who have not just the interest but the skills and abilities to effectively influence policymakers, to influence local communities, to educate local communities about the importance of science and neuroscience in our everyday lives.
JOHNSON: What do you think the biggest challenges and possible obstacles are going forward with this type of advocacy in general?
MARTIN: Well, I think one of the concerns, one of the challenges, I think, is always this notion of complacency. We don't speak about it much because we, SfN, doesn't take full credit for it, but if you think about where we've been over the last five or even 10 years, we've really benefited. We, the field, has benefited from relatively robust and sustained increases in funding, at least to the National Institutes of Health and to the National Science Foundation. I think within that one begins to be concerned that individuals might be complacent, that they don't recognize that actually the work that goes into ensuring that that happens, to ensuring that funding research and investing in science is a nonpartisan issue. It's one that actually contributes to overall kind of competitiveness, I would say. When the times are good and there are not enough individuals who recognize the sort of hard work that goes into that, I think there's a concern around complacency and sort of an erosion of that progress.
JOHNSON: Do you think also there might be, and this is just speaking from the time we are in now, where I think there might be a concern that the public trust in sort of science and facts, dare I say it, but the public trust is precarious right now. And I wonder if you have any comments on that. I know it's a nonpartisan issue or it should be at least, but I think there are a lot of concerns out there.
MARTIN: It's a really good point, Taylor. I hadn't thought about that as much, but I think you're right. I mean foundational to what we do — and this is why we spend time trying to educate the public — foundational is this notion of that this is a public trust issue, that we really want everyone to recognize that the research that we do, the therapies that we try to advance are really for the benefit of individuals, their families, and society. When that trust erodes, it'll be first reflected by representatives who now no longer support appropriations bills that actually enable this robust investment in science. It's a really good point.
JOHNSON: I guess I feel like the public can be distracted by certain things that take attention off what actually really does matter. Obviously we feel very strongly about neuroscience and science in general, and if there are distractions, I know some things might disappear. I know that sort of falls on the responsibility of the scientists, but also that of societies like the Society for Neuroscience. In terms of sort of combating complacency, combating mistrust, sort of combating just the erosion of truth and of science. What do you think the Society for Neuroscience needs to do, especially the Government and Public Affairs Committee? What are their tasks moving forward that they need to be conscious of if we're going to fight this erosion, fight this complacency?
MARTIN: Well, I think the tasks that the GPA needs to be aware of to fight complacency begin with, again, reinforcing the notion that research and advances in research have a societal benefit and that continued scientific progress is not an elitist stance. It's actually, if anything, much more of an egalitarian stance: It's really for the benefit of individuals, again in terms of just health and wellness as well as disease. And so one of the activities that we take on, we, Society for Neuroscience with GPA on an annual basis, is a Public Advocacy Forum, which is actually open to the public. So wherever we happen to meet, it's one of the very few events during SfN that are open to the public.
This is an opportunity for the public to come in and hear robust discussions and presentations around the science of some brain-related phenomenon that affects society. We've had previous meetings on the role of sports and brain injuries. We've had meetings on the role of music and art in the brain. I think it's these types of events that reflect this notion of meeting people where they are to maintain a connectedness, not a distance, so not to live through just an intellectual world, but actually come and meet folks where they are and actually listen to the issues that are affecting them.
JOHNSON: That's great. This is a bit of an aside, but I know some researchers who do work in Antarctica, and Antarctica's kind of like this place away from the rest of the world in the sense that there are a lot of scientists from different countries who are doing science and are focused on science. I think a lot of sort of the politics is taken out of it and there's a bit of a, just sort of a general respect for that. But of course that's removed from where we are now. Do you think there's a chance that we can kind of bring that global appreciation for neuroscience sort of out of a situation in Antarctica and into the public?
MARTIN: Well, it is global and I think that this is where... I think part of the power of the approach we've taken over the last decade or so is to recognize that when we speak about advocacy and the importance of brain research, we do so really on an international local scale. So it basically begins to introduce the importance of these concepts — within the UK, within Germany, within areas that might be geopolitically orthogonal to where the US is today or where it might be going.
I think that's really important because we've often seen this sort of internationalization as an exporting of concepts or ideas. And I think that if we're successful here in this true kind of internationalization of advocacy, then it provides a kind of buffer that allows us to import ideas as well. To actually see how others are making progress, see how others are using advances in research to inform societal policies and things like that. So I hope that that's a way of continuing to bring us together. I fear that in fact we are moving toward a more balkanized view where we become more insular rather than globally aware of the opportunities within neuroscience.
JOHNSON: No, I totally understand. You kind of already answered this, but I was wondering if you can put it into a few words, where would you like to see the Society in, let's say the next 50 years, when they celebrate their 100th anniversary?
MARTIN: Where would I like to see the Society when they celebrate their 100th anniversary? I think this is important to recognize, that on the one hand, people always think bigger is better. But to me, a highly effective organization that's in tune with its members’ needs, and again members international, a growing international kind of representation. To me, this is the opportunity. How do we continue to ensure alignment across a variety of different constituencies? How do we continue to identify common ground that we can all sort of walk on together?
I think this is going to be the greater challenge. The push will be to get larger and larger, and I think with that scale, with that size, it doesn't necessarily mean that the influence or effectiveness increases. I think one of the things that's been so great about these first 50 years is that while the Society for Neuroscience obviously is almost as large as it's ever been, I think that size alone was never the focus. A highly effective means of serving its members was always the focus, the role that the SfN had within the US, North America, and the world — that was the focus, not merely size itself.
So I hope that's true for the next 50 years as well. We continue to sort of focus on the things that matter. It always sounds so easy, but in fact it's the things that we don't do that wind up being as important as the things that we do, and the things that we don't do reflect the ability to focus on what really matters.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Well what a wonderful sentiment to wrap up on. Are there any key takeaways?
MARTIN: I guess one of the key kind of takeaways is reinforcing this notion that I and we look to the next generation to really set the stage for what it means to be a NeuroAdvocate, for what it means to be a 21st century scientist. And I'm really optimistic. I think that the work we've done has effectively seeded the ground. We've talked about the Early Career Ambassadors Program and I hope that others will sort of take on this charge of seeing themselves as part of this larger whole, recognizing that the ecosystem thrives whenever one is kind of participatory in a productive manner. So I think we'll try to leave it at that.
JOHNSON: Well that's great. I have a little bonus question for you if you don't mind.
MARTIN: No, that's great.
JOHNSON: I was just wondering if there was a particular moment that in your work, whether it was on the GPA as chair or before that, what was one of your proudest moments or maybe one of those moments that was kind of like a bingo moment in terms of your involvement with advocacy.
MARTIN: A bingo moment in terms of my involvement with advocacy. I think there have been several. I think we, the Society for Neuroscience, were actually on Capitol Hill when the Affordable Care Act was passed. And so I think that while again, we have no direct role in that, I think to be on Capitol Hill, and I've probably been there seven or eight times now, it's a reminder of the kind of continuity of democracy and the power of democracy. It's really quite unique, and it's easy to become cynical and think that things don't move forward and that we're locked into a partisan debate, but in fact when you go spend time there, as I have, I would say every single experience has been rewarding. To actually watch democracy in action, I think has been one of the highlights of my role within advocacy and the Society for Neuroscience.
JOHNSON: That's great. Well, again, Dr. Martin, thank you so much. Really appreciate your time and your insight and your stories, so thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you, Taylor, it's been great.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.