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Posted on May 2, 2007
Because my knowledge of neuroscience is pretty much limited to what I remember (not much) from Oliver Sack's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I approached Research Funding in Neuroscience: A Profile of The McKnight Endowment Fund with some trepidation. Fortunately, one does not need to know a great deal about the brain or brain research to enjoy the book, and for those interested in learning how one family foundation was able to leverage a relatively small investment into significant impact on a single field, it's downright inspirational.
Funded solely by the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience operates independently with its own board and awards committees comprised of some of the country's leading neuroscientists. To celebrate thirty years of McKnight funding for brain research — the foundation has awarded more than $100 million to support research on the brain since 1976 — and the twentieth anniversary of the fund itself, the fund commissioned Gabrielle Strobel, a highly regarded science journalist, to profile its work and examine its effectiveness from several perspectives.
The catalyst for the foundation's interest in neuroscience was William McKnight (1887-1979), leader of the 3M company for three decades and the foundation's founder, who realized in his eighties that his memory was failing. McKnight had championed research, innovation, and the freedom to fail from his early days at 3M, and he wanted to apply that paradigm to brain research in a way that might not only slow the deterioration of his own mind but also benefit humanity. To honor her father, Virginia McKnight Binger, then the foundation's president, created the McKnight Scholar Awards in 1976, and the basic structure of the program — supporting research by promising individuals with few strings attached and translating basic discoveries to fundamental advances in diagnosing, treating, and preventing neurological diseases — survives to this day.
Drawing from the fund's three decades of experience, Research Funding in Neuroscience outlines ten key principles that funders should consider when supporting scientific research. They include identifying sometimes hidden niches where funding might have disproportionately significant impacts; providing funding that is flexible enough for awardees to use however their work requires; and formally incorporating networks and conferences that can foster collaboration. Strobel includes in the book an interview with the late Julius Axelrod, a Nobel laureate and one of the great neuroscientists of the 20th century, who offered his insights and wisdom to the fund in its early days and recounts some of the issues involved in establishing a new awards program. Also included are testimonials from award recipients on the value of the award to their careers. Appendices provide lists of all McKnight Scholar awardees and other major awards McKnight-affiliated scientists have won.
Although memory loss and brain disorders have not yet been cured, knowledge about how the brain works has grown enormously. As Strobel concludes her book, "William L. McKnight's contributions to brain science have proved to be an extraordinary gift."