Dr. Herbert Pardes Reflects on the Origins and Importance of the Foundation’s Scientific Council
Please enjoy this Q&A sit down with Herbert Pardes, M.D., Executive Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital / President and Founding Member of the BBRF Scientific Council, and 2014 Pardes Humanitarian Prizewinner in Mental Health.
QUESTION: Dr. Pardes, as the founding President of the Foundation’s Scientific Council, your name above all others is associated with that body. So there is no one better suited than you to help us understand the vital role the Council has played in the Foundation’s history.
First, let’s provide a little context for our readers. The story begins in 1984, when, after serving for five and a half years under Presidents Carter and Reagan as Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), you decided to return to academic medicine, becoming Chair of Psychiatry at Columbia University and later the Dean of the Medical School and V.P. of Health Services at Columbia. But you also devoted time to related issues and causes. One of these is what you’ve called “citizen involvement” in the cause of mental health.
DR. PARDES: That’s right. In my years in Washington, as we got the NIMH to focus more on research and clinical treatment of mental illness, I also felt strongly that we should work to develop collaborations with citizens. In 1979, I had been invited to a meeting in Madison, Wisconsin held by a group of parents of people with schizophrenia. They asked: “What if we had a family group that worked for mental illness causes?” I thought it was a great idea.
QUESTION: Why? What was so important about bringing families into the picture?
DR. PARDES: Other citizen groups had been working for years on behalf of people with other illnesses, including muscular dystrophy, cancer, and heart disease. There were no similarly powerful advocacy groups at that time for people with mental illness. Why? Well, most patients with severe mental illnesses aren’t able to advocate, either because of incapacity or a fear of being stigmatized. At the same time, most people who don’t suffer from a psychiatric illness figure they will never suffer from one–an attitude very few reasonable people have about cancer or heart disease, for instance. So I felt the time was ripe for a partnership between people in the psychiatric profession and the public. I also thought we could make a serious dent in stigma by bringing families into the picture on a national scale. The group that emerged from that 1979 gathering in Madison did precisely that. It was called the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, or NAMI. It continues to this day to be a highly influential citizens' group on psychiatric illness.
QUESTION: Explain how that group gave rise in 1986 to what we now call the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation– or NARSAD, as it was called then.
DR. PARDES: After NAMI had been running for a while, they raised the question: “Shouldn’t we launch a private organization that would be dedicated to the support of research, to complement our citizens' advocacy group and the work of the NIMH?” Again, I agreed enthusiastically. At the beginning of this effort, the core group consisted of several leaders from NAMI and a group from Kentucky, Boston and other places, called the Schizophrenia Foundation. Together, under Gwill Newman of Chicago, they formed an organization called NARSAD, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.
QUESTION: The Scientific Council of NARSAD (and now BBRF) traces its origins to that same time, the year 1986, correct?
DR. PARDES: Yes. The original members of our Scientific Council–about a dozen people–selected me as president at our first meeting in 1986. Little did I know then that the Council’s work would be one of the great professional and personal experiences of my life! For over 30 years, this group, which is now composed of over 172 leaders in all aspects of neurobiology, neuroscience, clinical care, psychology and psychiatry, has awarded thousands of grants worth more than $394 million to the very best scientists, many of them just starting out and in greatest need of external support. Having “a NARSAD” has become a mark of distinction, something academic researchers who receive such an award often boast about, in part because the grants are so thoughtfully awarded by experts in the field, who advise the Council.
QUESTION: What have been some of the factors behind the effectiveness of the Council?
DR. PARDES: From the very beginning, the Council has been composed of a substantial number of people who are dedicated and very highly regarded leaders in their respective fields. These are people who have really understood how psychiatric research is funded, who have a deep knowledge of how things work.
QUESTION: In what sense?
DR. PARDES: We’ve followed a number of principles that have stood the test of time. Number one: we agreed not to make elaborate or complicated bylaws. We were all volunteers (and continue to be). We were not out to establish a bureaucracy. Which leads to number two: we agreed that our emphasis was on excellence: It was our job to identify the very best people in need of funding for their research. We wanted our grants to reflect a broad spectrum of concerns in mental health and psychiatry, including basic research, translational research and also research on clinical care. Number three: we agreed that in inviting applicants, we would set as a priority the quality of the work and the quality of the applicant. People in all disciplines could apply as long as their research was relevant to mental health, and particularly the clinical psychiatric disorders. We made a point of making the application process as simple as possible, so that applicants didn’t have to spend months on a proposal–that’s valuable time taken away from research. We decided we would encourage people to apply from all over the world. Again, this reflected our overriding interest in excellence. We wanted to identify the best people with the best ideas, no matter where they were from or where they worked.
QUESTION: One of the original members of the Scientific Council, Dr. Jack Barchas of Weill-Cornell Medical College, tells a wonderful story about the Council’s first meeting in 1986, the one at which you were elected president. The group had high ambitions, he remembers, but only $50,000 to disperse to grantees.
DR. PARDES: How could I forget! In fact, the issue at that time was whether it made sense to award any grants at all. It might just be a flash in the pan, we thought. What if we couldn’t get another $50,000? But we were determined to find away. Here, full credit goes to Steve and Connie Lieber, whom we had recently met at a public symposium about mental health that I had organized at Columbia University. This remarkable couple had come up to me and told me of their daughter who suffered from schizophrenia. They wanted to know what they could do to help. That was one of the most important moments in the Foundation’s history. Because it was the Liebers, who, hearing of our debate about funding those initial NARSAD grants, said without hesitation, ‘Let’s give it a shot and do it!’ We lost Connie in 2016, but we will always remember that it was she, who led the Foundation as President and shaped it for a quarter-century, and Steve, who has continued to guide it after her passing, who have been the constant and indispensable factors in the mix.
QUESTION: So what came of the original $50,000?
DR. PARDES: Our starting financial base of $50,000 was obviously insufficient, but the Board of Trustees urged us to issue those first 10 grants at the level we intended, assuring us that they would make up the difference. And they did just that. The extraordinarily positive relationship of the Board and the Council have had a lot to do with the Foundation’s success over the years.
QUESTION: How have the Trustees been involved in the Council’s work?
DR. PARDES: They haven’t been—and that’s the point. From the beginning, the Board has understood that scientific competence in the organization resides in the Scientific Council. Their way of acting upon this key principle has been to defer to our judgment when it comes to grant-making. It’s a great instance of how donors and scientists can interact to maximum mutual benefit. It’s one of the things that makes this Foundation stand out. We in the Council assess applicants and award the grants; the Board and the excellent administrative staff of the Foundation handles everything else, from fundraising to organizing events to actually disbursing the grants. There is tight coordination between the Council and the Board, but we never get involved in one another’s business
QUESTION: And the grants themselves, how does the Council go about finding the best people and the most important projects?
DR. PARDES: We decided in our earliest days that our focus was going to be Young Investigators. We thought it was essential to provide support for very bright people who were just beginning their careers. They have the special problem of trying to accumulate a body of data to support major, multiyear funding from the government. It takes time to formulate a hypothesis and perform experiments that generate the kind of data that’s needed. The Council, as it continued to add members, had members with a great diversity of expertise who could help in assessing the applications coming in from all over the world. We settled on a system in which most members of the Council volunteer each year to assess a certain number of applications. Committees made up of several Council members coordinate and recommend to the entire group the final list of applicants, which the full Council votes on. For many years we have been committed to annually awarding two-year grants to 200 Young Investigators. In this way we’ve helped seed an entire generation of researchers in diverse aspects of mental health, neuroscience, and psychiatric research. I should add that I have never been involved in the review of any projects. It’s essential that there be no possibility of problematic conflict of interest. My feeling is, our scientists on the Council will tell us who the best and most deserving applicants are.
QUESTION: What about the other grant programs?
DR. PARDES: After establishing the Young Investigators program, we decided to invite people who have distinguished track records as investigators to apply for one-time $100,000 grants. The idea was to encourage brilliant people with known accomplishments to think outside the box–to propose projects that might not be funded by the federal government, which for understandable reasons is conservative in its approach. We felt our Distinguished Investigators, as we called them, had the potential to hit some home runs–by proposing high-risk, high-reward ideas. All we ask at the beginning is a one-page description of a project they want to do. A committee of the Council narrows the list of several hundred each year to about 30 of the most interesting. Then we go back to those applicants and ask for more detailed proposals. About half of these are funded each year.
QUESTION: And what about the Independent Investigators?
DR. PARDES: It was obvious to us that there was another important gap to fill. For scientists who have already established themselves, but are not yet senior, it is crucial that funds be available to sustain their work as it matures. These are what we call the Independent Investigators, and for many years we have been able to award about 40 two-year grants annually. So when you consider all of our grant programs together, you can see how one can lead to the next, and how over a period of years, our Foundation can really have a major impact on the success of some of the most deserving brilliant minds who are leading the field forward. I am very proud of this, and I know the rest of the Council is.
QUESTION: Awarding grants is not the only part of the Council’s business that has had a big impact on the field, however. Tell us briefly about the Foundation’s Annual Awards.
DR. PARDES: Just as we set up committees to run each of the grant programs, we have groups of Council members who are responsible for giving awards to people who have done great research and have major accomplishments to their name. We realized, little by little, that the field could really benefit from an awards program like this that would bring major recognition, both internally among colleagues and also from the general public. We began with an annual prize for excellence in schizophrenia research. Then we added a prize for affective disorders and then children’s disorders. We celebrate the prize winners at the Foundation’s annual symposium in October (the 26th of this year) and at the annual gala, held the same evening. These prizes are probably the most successful and important awards for psychiatric research given anywhere. They carry great prestige. We feel they bring well-deserved attention to researchers whose achievements often go unrecognized. Just as with our grant programs, the awards we give are continually helping to advance the field, and at the same time have brought great credit to the Foundation and its important mission to find better treatments for mental illness
-- Written By Peter Tarr, Ph.D.