When I started my lectureship (a position equivalent to assistant professor in the US system) way back in the good old days of 2007, one of the first things I had to think about was how to begin building a research group. My research interests are in understanding human memory using cognitive neuroscience techniques such as neuropsychology (studying the way memory is disrupted following brain damage or dementia) and neuroimaging (studying the brain areas that are particularly active while remembering). We are seeking a greater understanding of the way in which different memory processes are organised in the brain, as a means to determine how these processes might be preserved or impaired in neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Cognitive neuroscience often generates great excitement in the media and the public in general. This is apparent most obviously in the genuine fascination people have with seeing where in the brain “lights up” during a particular kind of behaviour. Perhaps somewhat less evident in the media, but still captivating to many who hear about it, are the many strange and wonderful examples of altered behaviour following brain injury or stroke. Indeed, it was through hearing vivid descriptions of neuropsychological behaviours from an inspirational undergraduate lecturer that I became hooked on the area as a student. Another reason perhaps for the great interest in cognitive neuroscience in this country is that the UK is very good at it. Considering the disparities in funding and resources compared with the US, for example, the UK is right up there among the world leaders in the field no matter which measure you choose. Just as one example, two of the top five (and three of the top ten) most highly cited scientists in the field work in the UK.
Cognitive neuroscience is still a relatively young field, but has – it seems to me at least – largely now moved on from the days in which studies demonstrating “the neural correlates of x” would always generate great excitement. Such straightforward studies can still be published, and can sometimes be interesting. However, researchers are often now more interested in using cognitive neuroscience techniques to inform the development of cognitive theories and to better understand cognitive disorders. Thus competency with the technically demanding methods of functional MRI, for example, needs to be coupled with the ability to design and implement cognitive paradigms that address closely the function of interest, allow theoretically motivated variables to be manipulated while others are controlled, and permit inferences that can be used to differentiate between competing cognitive hypotheses about how that function operates.
Building a group in which such multidisciplinary skills are represented is not straightforward, and gaining access to the methods (whether functional MRI scans of brain activity in healthy volunteers, or structural MRI scans of lesion locations and volumes in patients) does not come cheap. Thus, in 2007, I was very aware that I needed to apply for research funding. Back then, there were three main categories of funding body that I felt might be interested in funding cognitive neuroscience research:
- Research Councils – the MRC (medical research), BBSRC (biotechnology and biological sciences research), and to a lesser extent, the ESRC (economic and social research)
- Charities – primarily the Wellcome Trust, although also bodies such as the Alzheimer’s Research Trust
- Industry – mainly pharmaceutical companies interested in funding cognitive neuroscience research that might advance drug development
As such, in addition to writing new lecture courses and trying to do some cheap experiments (often thanks to the help and generosity of colleagues and former advisors), I spent the first couple of years as a lecturer writing grants. In submitting applications and seeking opportunities in each of the three funding categories above, I was helped a great deal by the advice and support of senior colleagues in my department and elsewhere. In addition, many of the funding bodies interested in cognitive neuroscience had schemes particularly suited to early career researchers, such as small grant schemes and young investigator awards. It never seemed easy, and I was prepared for the fact that a very small proportion of my applications might be successful, but I did at least feel that there were a number of places I could go to seek funding.
Now, however, the funding landscape for cognitive neuroscience research seems to have changed considerably.
In the last couple of years, a number of major pharmaceutical companies have closed their neuroscience research and development facilities. In addition, perhaps anticipating a cut in the government funding of science research that never materialised (in no small part thanks to the “Science is Vital” campaign), many of the charities and research councils revamped their funding schemes. These overhauls were announced as measures “to better reflect strategic priorities”, but the result seems to me to be a significant reduction in the funding opportunities available to early career investigators in cognitive neuroscience.
To give a few examples:
- The ESRC recently announced the closure of its “small grants” scheme, which provided limited sums particularly suited to allowing early career researchers to develop paradigms and collect preliminary data that could be used to strengthen applications for larger grants in the future.
- The Wellcome Trust has ended its project grant and programme grant schemes, the former of which provided the kind of support (one member of staff and research costs for three years) that was ideal as a first substantial grant for someone building their group. Instead, the Trust has replaced these schemes with investigator awards, aimed at “exceptional individuals” who “have been lead investigator on at least one significant research grant from a major funding body”.
- Finally, as seen in all the papers and discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the last few days, the BBSRC announced that it was “reprioritising” its funding away from neuroscience. This was reported as a complete axing of the council’s neuroscience budget, and possible closure of up to 30 research groups. However, after admitting an error in one of its media briefings, the BBSRC clarified that the changes would “only” mean a reduction of perhaps 20% in the funding directed at neuroscience research.
These developments mean that it is much more difficult to see how a new lecturer can build a cognitive neuroscience research group now. Many of the schemes directly aimed at those early in their career have either been axed or shifted to support individuals who have already led a research grant. But how are you supposed to develop the track record of having led a research grant if nobody will fund you before you have that track record?
Also, despite cognitive neuroscience being one of this country’s major science success stories in recent years, internationally competitive when compared against even the finest and best funded groups in the US and elsewhere, there is a concern that many of the UK funding bodies seem to be intent on moving away from funding cognitive neuroscience research. The recent move by the BBSRC, coupled with a shift by the MRC over the last few years to prioritise translational neuroscience research that has direct and clear applications to patient care, means that it is not clear which of the research councils now sees basic cognitive neuroscience research as within its funding remit.
Is there a cognitive neuroscience funding crisis? There is undoubtedly still a lot of money on offer: the MRC alone funds over £100 million of research in the general area of neuroscience. However, the perception among cognitive neuroscientists is that a very difficult situation has recently become much harder (David Colquhoun has mentioned that only around 7% of neuroscience and mental health grant applications were funded by the MRC in the most recent round). This is not helped when funding bodies announce changes, which may turn out to be relatively minor reprioritisations, in a way that lead to sensational media headlines about the “disastrous impact” of “draconian funding cuts”.
As a result, this is a worrying time to be a cognitive neuroscience researcher, but it is particularly concerning that the crucial first few rungs on the funding ladder for new researchers seem to be those most under threat. It is obvious that new researchers are the most vulnerable and in need of support in developing their research careers. If such individuals feel that the UK funding bodies are making it simply impossible for them to do that, they will either go abroad or leave science completely. And if that happens, a cutting edge field in which the UK has been one of the world leaders within only the last few years, will face a future of rapid and inescapable decline.