Promoting neuroscience in Europe with FENS

Founded in 1998 at the first Forum of European Neuroscience, the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) is the voice of neuroscience in Europe.

FENS currently represents 43 European national and single discipline neuroscience societies with more than 20,000 member scientists from 33 countries across Europe. FENS promotes neuroscience research to policy-makers, funding bodies and the general public, both regionally and internationally. Hence, FENS promotes excellence in neuroscience research and facilitates exchanges and networking between neuroscientists within the European Research Area and beyond. We spoke to FENS President, Professor Carmen Sandi, about some of the latest trends and challenges the neuroscience sector is currently facing.

Can you start by giving us a brief overview of neuroscience and some of the latest trends?

Neuroscience is a very broad and vibrant discipline aimed at understanding how the brain works and which mechanisms underlie its different types of dysfunction, where new topics and techniques are constantly added. In recent years, the emergence of possibilities for large data collection and management, and advances in computational sciences, have transformed the way neuroscience is done today and how it relates to society.

I should mention the renewed emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which at its base is a neuroscientific discipline, and how it relates to our day-to-day activities. Similarly, technological advances in imaging and molecular and genetic tools have transformed the way we, as scientists, can understand complex behaviours and dissect the pathways and causes underlying behaviour and cognition as well as the debilitating diseases of the nervous system. I am very hopeful that a decade from now, insights derived from today’s investments in neuroscience research will form a new basis for providing early diagnosis, prevention and in some cases cures, for serious diseases that currently represent an unparalleled burden in Europe.

What is the work and role of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS)?

As the voice of neuroscience in Europe, FENS promotes collaboration, networking and career development for the neuroscience community at large, with a particular focus on European early-career scientists. FENS supports education and training by providing information, organising schools and training programmes, and offering grants. FENS facilitates the dissemination of scientific information through its journal, the European Journal of Neuroscience. It also encourages interactions between neuroscientists and related scientists within and outside Europe by holding scientific meetings such as the biannual neuroscience conference series “The Brain Conferences” and the biennial FENS Forum.

The FENS Forum of Neuroscience is FENS’ flagship event. It brings together more than 7,000 international neuroscientists every second year and fosters scientific exchange and interdisciplinary collaboration. It attracts scientists from academic, fundamental sciences to preclinical and pharma scientists who are working on translational understanding of the mechanisms underlying brain diseases. Facilitating the exchange between these diverse and international scientists is an important objective of the Forum, and for FENS more generally. The next Forum will take place in Glasgow on 11-15 July 2020.

Can you tell us a bit about the FENS Neuroscience Schools? What do these involve, and what would you say is the importance of these?

The Neuroscience Schools are part of FENS’ broader higher education and training strategy, which offers a wide range of opportunities in continued education and career development. At the end of your university education or when you start as a postdoc, when dedicated training in your particular field of neuroscience is often limited, formalised training such as that offered by FENS is extremely important for the success of a young scientist today.

The FENS schools are run within an intimate setting by leading scientists around novel concepts and theories in neuroscience. This format facilitates both formal and informal exchanges and leads to a high degree of interaction between the students and the faculty. FENS offers a wide range of training opportunities. The Cajal Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme for instance, which is a new training concept in Europe, offers a series of three-week hands-on training courses on timely neuroscience topics. The Cajal programme, which has been developed by FENS and IBRO and is supported by the Gatsby Foundation, is a unique platform for dedicated hands-on training across most disciplines in modern neuroscience. Tied in with these training programmes, FENS has also developed a Network of European Neuroscience Schools that brings together most of the Universities and Centres that are offering graduate training in neuroscience. The network, which currently represents more than 180 programmes, was recently expanded to also include online courses and programmes. Through this network, FENS can act at the European level to coordinate and influence neuroscience education.

What would you say is one of the biggest challenges FENS faces? How is this overcome?

Our mission at FENS is to advance research and education in neuroscience and, within this context, to promote neuroscience research to policy-makers, funding bodies and the general public. Too often, the societal value of investing in fundamental research is underestimated. The challenge to FENS thus lies in demonstrating the importance of investing in knowledge-generating fundamental research and showing how it fuels applied research and innovation. Promoting interaction and coordination between neuroscientists throughout the value chain is probably our largest challenge within the scientific arena of today, as well as connecting European research with efforts outside of Europe. To that effect, FENS regularly organises meetings and events, where scientists can connect across research areas and from different ends of the value-generating research enterprise. The FENS Forum, for instance, is a great platform to showcase innovation: delegates can learn more about new technological developments and meet with their peers, from basic to translational science. We also conduct a series of outreach activities to promote the understanding of neuroscience among the general public and decision-makers as well as coordinating events and activities within the scope of the European Brain Council (EBC) to influence how brain related policies and priorities are defined.

At the same time, what would you say is one of the biggest challenges facing neuroscience in Europe and how can it be overcome?

In Europe alone, an estimated 179 million people live with brain disorders and the estimated cost of these disorders in Europe since January 2019 has exceeded €615bn. Brain health, and by extension, brain research, need to be identified as funding priorities by the European Union and across its Member States. Policymakers, at both national and European scales, need to ensure that research remains a priority in order to secure new ideas and development of new technologies.

FENS has developed an advocacy strategy that comprises three levels. At the national level, FENS engages with policy-makers through its national neuroscience member societies: they identify and act on the specific needs for neuroscience advocacy. Under the umbrella of the EBC, FENS, together with other member organisations, regularly interacts as an advisor to European institutions and provides expertise and recommendations. Speaking as one voice towards the European Institutions, the EBC stands as a unique platform to foster cooperation between its member organisations and other stakeholders. At the global level, FENS works with other leading organisations to raise public awareness and promote investment in and cohesion of neuroscience research. In this context, FENS provides support for advocacy and outreach programmes across the globe for the dissemination and support of brain research.

What is next for FENS? Where would you like to be in five years’ time?

2020 is a Forum year! The 12th edition of the FENS Forum will take place on 11-15 July in Glasgow, UK. It has a high-quality and wide-ranging scientific programme, designed to showcase the frontlines of science, giving the floor to renowned speakers and the most up-to-date discoveries and innovation. The Forum is always a great platform to discuss science, regardless of career stage. On a slightly longer horizon, I believe that FENS will continue to play a vital role in coordinating knowledge exchange in Europe and globally. I am confident that the scientific community will continue to embrace the values that are provided by scientific societies in Europe as I truly believe FENS and similar organisations represent the best channels to support the delivery of tomorrow’s knowledge and cures.

Professor Carmen Sandi


Federation of European Neuroscience Societies

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