Brains and Budgets
The agency is also stepping up its neuroscience activity spending through the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, with the ambitious goal of revolutionizing what science knows about the human brain to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.
BRAIN was unveiled by Obama in April, with NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., in September approving high-priority research areas recommended by an advisory committee to BRAIN’s Working Group in an interim report; the group’s final report will come out June 2014.
Among adopted recommendations: generating a census of cell types; creating structural maps of the brain; developing new capabilities for recording large-scale neural networks; developing tools for circuit manipulation; and linking neuronal activity to behavior.
Dr. Collins “instructed his staff to use that to guide the development of funding opportunities for this year,” as in requests for applications for grants to be funded from $40 million NIH will set aside this fiscal year, Kathy L. Hudson, Ph.D., NIH’s deputy director for science, outreach, and policy, told GEN. At deadline, the requests were expected to come out later this month, with grant awards to be made in September 2014.
“I think the BRAIN initiative, at least in its early years, is a modest investment compared to the overall funding for neuroscience research, so I don’t anticipate it will have a dramatic effect on the number of neuroscientists. I think the current budget climate will have an effect on the number of scientists in general,” Dr. Hudson said.
The BRAIN initiative’s heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary research, she added, can be expected to produce future neuroscientists with training in multiple areas—“folks with training in neuroscience and informatics, neuroscience and computation, as well as neuroscience and engineering. I think that there might be, with time, some shift in the kind of neuroscientists that we have trained. But that would be a longer-term undertaking.”
NIH isn’t the only agency championing new neuroscience super-projects. In January, the European Union announced the €1 billion (about $1.4 billion) Human Brain Project (HBP), which in part will use medical informatics to identify biological signatures of brain disease, allowing for earlier-stage diagnosis and enabling personalized medicine.
While NIH and the EU say their efforts will accelerate development of treatments, such translation is years, if not decades away—and will have to follow years of additional basic research, which some newly minted Ph.D.s will be fortunate enough to work on. The main limitation for both BRAIN and HBP is tight government funding, which will limit how many Ph.D.s ultimately contribute to and benefit from the super-projects. And with big biopharma increasingly outsourcing R&D, smaller companies (with lower pay) and academia (where pay is also an issue) remain the most likely places where the Ph.D.s will get to carry out their research.