Science Policy For All

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How Much Neuroscience Funding is the Right Amount?

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By: Brian Russ, PhD

Source: pixabay

       Scientific funding can be a very tricky proposition. Unfortunately, there is a finite amount of money that is put towards science each funding cycle. This means that at any given time funding agencies need to decide where they believe their funds will be best spent. Every funding cycle, one can find different groups lamenting that their favorite topic is “being underfunded” while some other group is getting “too big a piece of the pie”. There is often no right answer to the question of how much is the right amount of funding to provide different topics, and the likelihood is that at the end of the day every group will feel that they are not getting the right amount of respect and funding.

This debate has come to the forefront recently in the fields of psychiatry and neuroscience with a change in the leadership at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In September, Dr. Joshua Gordon became the new director of the NIMH. Dr. Gordon’s directorship of the NIMH comes after a 13-year period of leadership by Dr. Tom Insel. During the previous administration, there had been an increasing focus on funding neuroscience related work, often at the expense of purely behavioral work, such as cognitive behavioral therapies for psychiatry patients. It is important to point out that the NIMH’s definition of neuroscience research includes basic, translational, and clinical neuroscience research. This direction led to a new research framework for studying mental health disorders termed the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), which has a very strong neuroscience component. The goal of RDoC is to provide a new framework in which researchers and clinicians can study and treat mental health disorders. The RDoC framework involves neuroscience components of brain circuits and physiology, and cognitive components of behavior and self-reports. The end goal is to provide a more comprehensive description of mental health disorders with the intention of developing cures and treatments. This push toward RDoC, and more neuroscience in general, has led to both praise and criticism of where the NIMH is directing its funding opportunities.

Recently, an opinion piece was published in the New York Times stating that the NIMH needs to reverse their push towards more neuroscience. Specifically, Dr. Markowitz, a research psychiatrist from Columbia University, believes that the NIMH has been funding neuroscience at the expense of clinical psychological research, in the absence of a brain oriented component. His argument is that in the current funding environment only 10% of the NIMH’s research budget is going towards clinical research. From the content of his article the research he is speaking of involves behavioral studies and interventions that contain no neuroscience component. Dr. Markowitz brings up many important points, and his main thesis that we cannot forget about behavioral interventions while pursuing the biological bases of clinical disorders is critical. For example, he makes the strong point that neuroscience research is unlikely to help solve the problem of suicide. And his final argument is for a “more balanced approach to funding clinical and neuroscience research.”

However, one can argue what that balance should actually look like. Is ten percent of the budget actually a small amount? And does that number include the multitude of basic neuroscience studies that are investigating the neural underpinning of a given disease? For example, based on the NIH reporter, schizophrenia research has been funded for approximately 250 million dollars for each of the last three years. A quick look at the total budget (32.3 billion in 2016, with ~25 billion going to research grants) suggests that that would be on the order of about 1% of the total NIH research budget. This is only one disease, and is being calculated from the whole NIH budget, not just from the NIMH budget. Only a portion of that funding is going towards clinical research, as Dr. Markowitz would define it, however the rest of that funding is going to research that will in all likelihood provide clinical benefits to patients down the road, in the form of new physiological targets or potentially new drugs.

So how can one make a determination about the correct of amount of funding that should go towards different mental health fields? Should 25% or 50% of the budget go towards clinical research? It seems that comparing the percent of money going to clinical research versus neuroscience is simply a bad comparison. Neuroscience is not one homogenous topic; it includes tens of, if not over a hundred, different fields. The various mental health fields fighting each other over funding doesn’t help anyone. Both neuroscience and clinical research need to be funded. It seems that the best way to divide the funding from NIMH would not be to specify what field gets priority but instead to fund the best grants regardless of whether there is a specific component involved. This would open the door to more clinical research while not requiring a shift in the priorities of the NIMH, whose mission is to understand and treat mental illnesses though both basic and clinical research. For instance, RDoC already contains both behavioral and self-report components. These components should be given as much priority as the other neuroscience components. If 10% of the budget is given to behavioral work, in this way, that would seem reasonable, possibly even greater than other areas might be getting.

On a final note, while we should always be looking internally at how we are funding different types of science, and if we, the public, are getting our money’s worth out of projects, it is also important for us to ensure that science funding as a whole is increasing. The current funding environment has been relatively static for years. We need, through advocacy and outreach, to get the public and government to provide more funding opportunities to the NIH. As the saying goes “a rising tide raises all boats”.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 17, 2016 at 6:53 pm

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