U.K. Neuroscientists Complain Funding Cut Penalizes Them for Success

LONDON—At a briefing here today, the British Neuroscience Association (BNA) warned that a planned 20% cut in funding for neuroscience by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will drive an estimated 100 researchers in the field from the United Kingdom and weaken the nation in a scientific discipline in which it has traditionally excelled. In a letter addressed to Tom Blundell, chair of the council of the BBSRC, which more than 100 neuroscientists put their name to, BNA protested the funding cut and called for its reconsideration.

In January, BBSRC revealed its plans to prioritize particular research disciplines that it believes will help address major challenges to future society. BBSRC’s favored themes include: food security, bioenergy and industrial biotechnology and basic bioscience underpinning health and wellbeing. The Council said that meant that neuroscience, which currently accounts for 13% of grant funding (amounting to £150 million), will receive less funding. BBSRC’s head Douglas Kell recently defended the cut in a blog post.

BNA says that BBSRC’s reprioritization smacks of a desperate measure to balance the books, and that the field of neuroscience is being penalized for being successful. British neuroscientists contend that they have a great track record, helping to explain brain illnesses such as motor neuron, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases, and develop many important drugs such as Fluoxetine, the widely used antidepressant known as Prozac. Eli Lilly, a U.S.-based pharmaceutical company, found that neuroscience research in the south of England was the most cited globally.

David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London says that there has been no explanation by BBSRC for their dramatic change in strategy, and no consultation on these cuts. The effects will be felt immediately, he says. It just seems like an “arbitrary exclusion.” “I don’t know what to tell my PhD students … I don’t see jobs for them,” he remarks.

Duncan Banks, the director of BNA , argued that the BBSRC’s funding cut, amounting to about £4 million in spending on neuroscience, will particularly affect opportunities for young scientists, he explains.

BBSRC cuts come at a time when the funding for basic neuroscience in the United Kingdom is already threatened with a move by the Medical Research Council to fund more clinically relevant science, explains Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford and former head of the Medical Research Council. Yet one-third of global health issues are related to neurological problems, such as depression, pain, and the diseases of the aging brain. BNA points out that what really drives new treatments is basic research. Blakemore remarks, “Neuroscience remains one of the least understood areas of biology.” “An aging population should be very worried about cuts in neuroscience,” he says.

The strength of the U.K.’s basic research was what originally attracted pharmaceutical companies to the United Kingdom, notes Blakemore. Yet that attraction may be fading, especially in the neuroscience. Recent closures of many pharma-funded institutes working in the field of neuroscience—Pfizer, GSK, Astra Zenica, and Merck have all closed institutes in the last year—may also force neuroscientists out of the United Kingdom.

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