Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Update on neuroscience funding

I wrote last week about a series of recent funding body announcements that have left UK scientists (especially those in the neurosciences, but many others too) feeling very worried about the future.  For example, in addition to the recent closure of a number of pharmaceutical company neuroscience research facilities, a previously major funder of basic cognitive neuroscience research, the BBSRC, announced it was re-prioritising its funding away from neuroscience.  Even more concerning for the future of the field, several funding schemes aimed particularly at early-career researchers have recently been overhauled in a manner that, I argued, seemed to significantly reduce the ability of a new researcher to establish a neuroscience research group.

Even if some of the reports turn out not to reflect accurately the changes that have been made, these recent developments have caused a great deal of concern amongst researchers.  As a result, it has been particularly welcome to see announcements and comments in the last few days from another major research council whose remit includes neuroscience, the MRC.

In a statement on 11 February entitled, “Setting the record straight on neuroscience funding,” Declan Mulkeen, director of research programmes, said that “neuroscience is a key feature in both the MRC’s strategy and delivery plan.”  Some large-sounding sums of money apparently available for funding neuroscience research were quoted:

Neuroscience research received more than £123 million in 2009/10 from the MRC – and recently we have also committed a further £24m of investment for initiatives to boost neurodegeneration and mental health research.

One concern some neuroscience researchers have had about the MRC in recent years has been the move towards what has sometimes seemed to be an exclusive focus on so-called “translational neuroscience”, research that has direct and obvious applications to patient care.  This shift has meant that it has not been clear whether the MRC has still been interested in funding basic, “blue-skies” neuroscience research.

Thus, comments in an interview with Times Higher Education reporter Paul Jump last week from the MRC chief executive, Sir John Savill, are very welcome.  Tackling the concern about basic science head-on, Savill said that “blue-skies research is an important part of our activity because it is where the best ideas come from.”  The move towards translational neuroscience was not, he argued, “a shift of emphasis: it is about having resources to do both (basic and applied research).”

Even more encouraging to see were comments indicating that Savill is aware of the need for greater support for early-career scientists who, as I discussed in my last post, are the most vulnerable and yet have been hit particularly hard by recent funding developments.  The THE article mentioned that the MRC’s delivery plan published last month identified as a priority the need to boost the success rates of early-career researchers applying for grants:

To this end, Sir John thinks that rather than rejecting their applications outright, the MRC might "pump-prime" their ideas with a small short-term grant; combined with feedback, this would "allow them to come back in a stronger position to apply for a full grant".

It will be interesting to see whether these warm words are reflected in new funding schemes aimed at early-career researchers, or official policies put in place to provide small grants that might allow such researchers to collect the kinds of preliminary data that would strengthen future applications.  In the meantime, it is at least reassuring to hear that neuroscientists at the start of their careers haven’t been entirely abandoned by the research funding community.

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