Ross and Bassett

A new paper published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience by Lauren Ross, UCI logic & philosophy of science associate professor, and Dani Bassett, University of Pennsylvania J. Peter Skirkanich Professor, provides clarity and calls for advances in the field of neuroscience.

Neuroscience research is often expected to identify “mechanisms” and provide mechanistic insights” into the brain.  This mechanism standard is so strong, that it is found in guidelines for top journals in the field and in funding inquiries from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.  This is also seen in discussions in the field, where mechanisms are viewed as a “fundamental” unit for understanding the brain.  

However, while the mechanism standard is often referenced, Ross and Bassett show that the field lacks consensus on what counts as mechanistic in the first place.

“While funding agencies and journals support work that identifies mechanisms, the field lacks consensus on how mechanism is understood.  In fact, reviewers for journals frequently disagree about whether submitted papers have identified mechanisms or not,” Ross explains.

Ross and Bassett show how three different uses of mechanism are common in the field, which can lead to confusion. 

“If experts define the same standard in different ways, this can clearly support crosstalk, confusion, and a lack of clear guidelines,” Ross says.

While their paper identifies challenges with this standard, it also provides suggestions for how to address these issues and how to keep the mechanism standard clear and meaningful.

“We have focused on neuroscience, but mechanism is a common status term in many fields, and it often needs to be carefully specified to support progress,” she says. 

Ross and Bassett hope this work leads to further discussions about the standards of neuroscience and how clarifying important status terms has widespread implications for what science gets published, funded, and supported.

“This project also reveals the strength of an interdisciplinary approach as Professor Bassett and I rely on our backgrounds in neuroscience, philosophy of science, and medicine in this research,” says Ross. “Sometimes it takes input from many fields to identify current obstacles and ways to move forward.”

Funding for this work was provided by Ross’s National Science Foundation grant under award number 1945647 and her John Templeton Foundation grant under award ID 63021.

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