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The effectiveness of the Neurosciences Institute

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Maybe I should talk about the Neurosciences Institute and how it got put together and how it's influenced me. Because this speaks to some other aspect of my life which I hadn't thought much of until I've had you people provoke me into this, and that is: what the devil have I been doing with myself or, as my wife says, 'On your dying days can all you look back on is grey academic scenes? Let's go have a vacation instead.'

Well, I thought about this when Tamara... you invited me and it comes down to this: I've never served on a scientific journal in a board of editors. By the way, that's a quasi-political affair because not only are you judging papers and trying to be decent about it etc., it also is quite political in the sense that you have a lot of power, at least recognized power by other scientists. I haven't done that. But what I have done is I've served in a variety of scientific institutions on the boards. For example, I served on the Basel Institute of Immunology; on the Salk Institute, I was Senior Governor to the Scripps Research Institute before I came here; I worked at the Jackson Lab board; I worked at the Carnegie Institution, etc., etc. Why did I do that? Well, I haven't really figured it out but I think it has something to do with the story I'm about to tell. It has to do with my feeling that a certain way of organizing things is better than certain other ways of organizing things in particular scientific fields. And through this implicit experience I think I've had some benefit.

In any case, I mentioned Frank Schmitt, this great scientific impresario. In 1982, after being on the... in the group of the Neurosciences Research Program for 20 years – because he started that in 1962 – he came to me in New York and he said... at that time I was professor at the Rockefeller University, the Vincent Astor professor... he came to me and he said, 'We don't quite see where we're going; what should the Neurosciences Research Program do?' And like some kind of fool – I guess I didn't learn in the army – I volunteered an answer in which case I had the burden. I said, 'Well, I think we're not spending enough time on integrative matters and on things that are really matter... matter a lot to people. So you and I are both interested in molecules but you know maybe we should have some approach to dealing with things like sensation, perception, consciousness and all of that stuff.' And he said, 'Well, what do you mean?' I said, 'Well, why don't you go and ask the guys... the neuro... the associates of the Neurosciences Research Program what they think about perception, for example – how are we doing? Are we there where we can really handle it scientifically?' He came back a week or so later and he said 85-87% of them said there's going to be a revolution. And I said, 'Well, that's terrific. So here's what I suggest: why don't we make a scientific monastery – why don't we make a place that... where people can come and where it's small, just like the early Rockefeller or something like that, and people can come and do whatever they please and be as crazy as they want but deal in these kind of larger issues, because otherwise I think we're losing an image of... or picture, a pattern.' And he said, 'Oh, terrific, you do it.'

Now, at the time I didn't realize what he was really interested in had to do with some fundraising since in fact the Government had just created... had cut off his funding for the Neurosciences Research Program. But he had a larger motive than that and after a certain amount of effort I was able to get enough support, particularly from Brook Astor, a great philanthropist in New York, to start the Neurosciences Institute. And what was that Institute? Well, at that time it was purely theoretical. It said, 'We'll get a bunch of bright young people and we'll have them develop various theories using computers to deal with the complexities of these neural systems and see how it all works through... works out; not just the theory of neuronal group selection or neural Darwinism but a lot of other theories.' We did that for a good ten years at the Rockefeller and at the same time we became the home of NRP. By that time Frank retired and turned over the head of the NRP, the chairmanship, to me, and we still have it to this day. At the same we'd begun this scientific monastery. Well, by '92 it became perfectly clear that we were probably going to have to move, both for positive and negative reasons. The first negative reason was that fundraising could not any longer be attempted in good will without coming up against the needs of the Rockefeller itself. So we had to develop another horizon. The... the second reason was constructive: we had an opportunity to get funding sufficient to build the kind of place you see here, this beautiful architectural collection and set of buildings that is the home of the NSI, the Neuroscience Institute.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Neurosciences Institute, 1982, Neurosciences Research Program, 1962, Rockefeller Institute, NSI, Frank Schmitt, Brook Astor

Duration: 5 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008