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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Neuro-Recession

Everyone's favourite British psychopharmacologist David "Ecstasy Vs Horseriding" Nutt joins four other leading neuroscientists to discuss the impact of the financial crisis on neuroscience, in an article over at NR:N: Neuroscience in recession?

It's interesting to get an international perspective. Susan Amara, President of the Society for Neuroscience, says that American scientists were encouraged by the surprise $10bn boost to NIH funds that made it into the 2009 economic stimulus package. But these funds are due to run out in 2012.

Meanwhile, in Europe, some countries have slashed funding as part of their austerity programmes - Greece most of all - while the larger and richer nations like France and Germany have protected science. Japan has also opted against major cuts, so far, but with a massive deficit, researchers fear that the axe will fall in coming years.

A repeated complaint is that biomedical research has faced a rate of inflation much higher than the rate experienced by the economy as a whole. Nutt says that if the overall inflation rate is 4% per year, the rate paid by scientists is more like 10%. As a result, even if nominal budgets are protected, the real budget will fall. The current British government has decided to keep nominal science funding flat, while cutting pretty much everything else, which is nice, but it still means falling real investment.

So everyone pretty much agrees that there are cuts, and cuts are bad. OK. Where things get more interesting is in the debate over what this means for individual scientists. Susan Amara says that she fears that investigator-initiated "R01" grants are in danger. These are when a scientist gets an idea, writes it up as a proposal and says "Isn't this cool? Can we have some money to do it?"

Amara warns that this kind of thing seems to be getting harder, while established, ongoing research programmes are being protected. But Tom Insel, head of the NIMH and, therefore, the guy with ultimate responsibility for these R01 grants, says the exact opposite. Insel claims that R01s are being protected in favour of the big programmes! "Where have we cut back in order to preserve R01 grants? ... We have reduced the budget of our intramural research programme."

Who's right on this point? I'm not sure. Maybe US readers might be able to comment.

The authors express particular worry that young neuroscientists (postdocs and PhD students) will suffer, either directly, as a result of not being able to find money, or indirectly in terms of poor morale and a sense that their talents might be better rewarded outside of science - leading to long-term harm to the next generation of neuroscientists.

They offer some words of encouragement, though, saying that the pendulum will swing back towards more investment in the future. Until then, hang on as best you can, even if it means being willing to move to find work with a supervisor, or in a country, which does have good funding prospects...

ResearchBlogging.orgAmara SG, Grillner S, Insel T, Nutt D, & Tsumoto T (2011). Neuroscience in recession? Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 12 (5), 297-302 PMID: 21505517

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