Next generation networks in Neuroscience

At the most recent 9th FENS (Federation of European Neuroscience Societies) Forum in Milano, Italy, NEURON started a new endeavor: an evening networking event. On July 8, 2014, over 40 early career scientists mixed and mingled with NEURON representatives and well reputed researchers between 7 and 9 pm. Not only early-career scientists that are connected via NEURON funded projects but also from other projects, institutions and areas found common interests and concerns. Despite the rather competitive semifinal football match in the world championship the same evening, people were keen to discuss matters of career development and possibilities to apply for research funding. Such ‘bringing together’ events are obviously necessary as one participant pointed out: “We need opportunities to sit together and exchange our different experiences with certain techniques and topics in the different neuroscience fields.” The (trans)-national support of academic career steps highly differs across the European Community.

And in any case, research profile development depends on individual striving engagement, promoting and experienced supervisors and – not least – a broad knowledge on funding sources. All items must perfectly fit to enhance the successful transition of young scientists from post doc training period to the establishment of their own research groups. Correspondingly, the youngsters put high on the wish list career development training, advice for early career progression from ‘normal’ scientists to ‘super stars’ in the field and enhanced science communication.

Particularly the FENS Forum is a highly attractive platform for the younger neuroscience research generation. Hundreds of posters in two sessions during four days witnessed the broad contribution of master and PhD students, post-docs and even group leaders. Not surprisingly, one of the most heard wishes for support was the one for more travel grants. Presentation with a poster or – even more valued and thus rare in early stages – an oral presentation at a well reputed conference (like FENS Forum) is one of the common currencies to show one’s scientific interest and contribution. But attendance (= registration fee), travel to and subsistence in a European city for several days are often financially hampering facts and established principal investigators might like to utilize the scarce travel funds rather for themselves.

One point that is – still – a matter of concern: In observing the floating audiences between symposia and poster presenters it became apparent that the majority of young attendees were female. But despite the fact that FENS Forum host and other committees comprise a roughly 40% female participation and the organizers of the Forum held up to a very reasonable number of female speakers in the prime time plenary lectures, one cannot avoid to notice the imbalance of gender representation from bottom to top. Like an Egyptian pyramid, many, many female researchers at the PhD level (bottom) narrow to the tip of the top-level research (e.g. head of departments or even institutions, last authors on high impact publications) where females can be counted on one hand. Where or at which stage are the many promising female researchers gone (for careers outside research)? Can’t be that the majority of those having achieved a doctoral thesis do not wish – or succeed – to stay in science. Among other reasons this must have something to do with the work-life balance which in science is – commonly known – rather an imbalance (because of profession!) towards long nights and laboratory or desk weekenders. Not perfectly suited for a relation or even family. And this does not only apply for female researchers, although it might well be that the traditional work-family distribution sees massive losses on the female researcher side on the career progression. As one young man, a successful early career developer enthused by pinning a large post-it note on the NEURON black board saying: “Work-Life balance and mobility for men and women!!” There is hardly anything to add. Except for (research) funders who may want to strive for specific support measures which may include specific research grants for young principal investigators, as well as different types of fellowships, awards and travel grants for researcher mobility (e.g. short visits, rotation and conferences).

The ERA-NET NEURON is a network of European funding for neuroscience research and has been set up to link 21 European national research funding agencies and ministries in order to jointly support research in the field of disease-related neurosciences. With the ‘Excellent Paper in Neuroscience Award’ (EPNA) NEURON offers an instrument of support for outstanding early career research achievements. The award is a central part of NEURON visibility towards the young research community to increase the attractiveness of neuroscience.