The National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a major new emphasis on cognitive neuroscience, setting aside $10 million from its 2001 budget to support basic research in the fast-growing field and to promote efforts to strengthen its infrastructure. As early as next year, the foundation may establish cognitive neuroscience as a formal, permanent program area.
The new allocation represents about 8 percent of total research funding within NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences and about 16 percent of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences' budget. No program area within that division is larger.
"It's tremendously exciting," says Temple University psychologist Nora Newcombe, PhD, who conducts research on spatial cognition and navigation. "This opens the field up for people to be focused on the basic science and on building theory."
In the past, researchers interested in the link between the brain and behavior have been rooted in the medical sciences, working to understand the role of the central nervous system in illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases and schizophrenia. Most public funding for cognitive neuroscience research in the United States has come from the National Institutes of Health.
But now, "researchers are starting to come to grips with much more basic cognitive processes that are not tied to diseases," says Steven J. Breckler, PhD, director of NSF's social psychology program and acting program director for cognitive neuroscience.
"They're looking at fundamental questions such as how the brain accomplishes memory, thought and reasoning, or how our brains allow us to navigate in the world," he explains. "Some of these questions have been answered in health-related research, but now the field has gotten to a place where it wants to take on those questions head-on."
Cognitive neuroscience research, with its reliance on sophisticated equipment and need for specialized technical support, tends to be far more expensivethan most other areas of behavioral research. A single experiment using functional magnetic resonance imaging, for example, can nearly exhaust an investigator's annual NSF grant budget.
To accommodate cognitive neuroscientists' needs, NSF plans to use up to half of its $10 million cognitive neuroscience allocation to bolster existing disciplinary programs that support research in the area, including its programs in human cognition, social psychology, linguistics and physical anthropology.
The foundation will use the remaining money to fund an array of projects to strengthen the field's infrastructure. In a recent letter to the research community, the agency solicited grant submissions in four areas:
Proposals to conduct pilot work in cognitive neuroscience, which might not be funded through normal channels.
Efforts to build research collaborations across laboratories, institutions and disciplines.
Development of workshops and conferences in the field.
Dissertations in cognitive neuroscience.
The new emphasis has received enthusiastic support across NSF directorates, says Breckler. Ultimately, advocates hope the emphasis on cognitive neuroscience will involve all areas of the foundation, from engineering and computer science to physics and biology.
Breckler explains, "The long-range plan isn't just to grow our budget, but to build our capacities for making advances in the field."