By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD
Federal Research Funding
US R&D Spending at All-Time High, Federal Share Reaches Record Low
Recently released data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) showed trending increases in scientific research funding in the US across the past several years. Estimates of the total funding for 2015 put the value at an all-time high for research and development (R&D) funding for any country in a single year. In 2009, President Obama stated a goal to devote 3% of the USA’s gross domestic product (GDP) to research, and we have been making slow progress to that point; in 2015, 2.78% of the GDP went to research. Businesses accounted for the largest portion of overall scientific funding, contributing 69% of the funds. The second largest contributor was the federal government; however, it had the lowest percentage share of the total since the NSF started tracking funding in 1953, and the actual dollar amount contributed has been declining since 2011. Therefore, although the overall percentage of GDP going to research is increasing, that increase is driven by businesses, whereas the GDP percentage contributed by the federal government has dropped to almost 0.6%.
When taking a closer look at types of research, the federal government is the largest funding source for basic science research, covering 45% of the total. However, businesses make up the majority of the funding for applied research (52% in 2014) and experimental development (82% in 2014). This disproportionality in funding types combined with the decreases in federal research spending are concerning for the basic science field. There is more competition for less money, and this concern is compounded by uncertainty and questions about President-Elect Trump’s position on and plans for scientific funding. Aside from a couple of issues, primarily concerning climate change and the environment, he has said very little about science and research. Many scientists, institutions, and concerned citizens will be watching closely to see how science policy develops under Trump’s administration and its effects on federal spending and beyond. (Mike Henry, American Institute of Physics)
‘Minibrains’ Could Help Drug Discovery for Zika and for Alzheimer’s
A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is working on a promising tool for evaluating disease and drug effects in humans without actually using humans for the tests. ‘Minibrains’ are clusters of human cells that originated as skin cells, reprogrammed to an earlier stage of development, and then forced to differentiate into human neural cells. They mimic the human brain as far as cell types and connections, but will never be anywhere near as large as a human brain and can never learn or become conscious.
A presentation earlier this year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference showcased the potential utility for minibrains. A large majority of drugs that are tested in animals fail when introduced in humans. Minibrains provide a way to test these drugs in human tissue at a much earlier stage – saving time, money, and animal testing – without risking harm to humans. Minibrains to test for biocompatibility can be made from skin cells of healthy humans, but skin cells from people with diseases or genetic traits can also be used to study disease effects.
A presentation at the Society for Neuroscience conference this month demonstrated one such disease – Zika. The minibrains’ growth is similar to fetal brain growth during early pregnancy. Using the minibrains, Dr. Hongjun Song’s team at JHU was able to see how the Zika virus affected the cells; the affected minibrains were much smaller than normal, a result that appears analogous to the microcephaly observed in infants whose mothers were infected with Zika during the first trimester.
Other presentations at the meeting showcased work from several research groups that are already using minibrains to study diseases and disorders including brain cancer, Down syndrome, and Rett syndrome, and plans are underway to utilize it in autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there might be a bit of an acceptance curve with the general public, minibrains potentially offer an avenue of testing that is a better representation of actual human cell behavior and response, is safer and more affordable, and reduces the need for animal testing. (Jon Hamilton, NPR)
A Twist on ‘Involuntary Commitment’: Some Heroin Users Request It
The opioid addiction epidemic has become a significant healthcare crisis in the United States. Just last week the US Surgeon General announced plans to target addiction and substance abuse. He also stated the desire for a change in perception of addiction – it is a medical condition rather than a moral or character flaw. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control published guidelines that address opioid prescribing practices for chronic pain, strongly urging physicians to exhaust non-pharmacologic options before utilizing opioids. In response to the rising concern over prescription opioid abuse, steps have been taken to reduce prescriptions and access. This has resulted in many turning to heroin – which is usually a cheaper alternative anyway – to get their opioid fix.
One of the first steps in treatment and recovery for addiction and dependence is detoxing. However, opioids are highly addictive and many people struggle with the temptation to relapse. Additionally, many of the programs designed to help with the initial detox have long wait lists, are expensive, and may not be covered by insurance, further deterring those with addiction and dependence from getting the help they need. These factors have caused many to start turning to their states, asking to be voluntarily committed to a program on the basis that they are a danger to themselves or others because of their substance abuse. This is currently an option in 38 states. These programs can be held in either privately-run institutions or in state prisons. However, this practice is controversial because if the person’s insurance does not cover their stay, it falls to tax payers to foot the bill. While this is unpopular with some, advocates say the civil commitment laws are important options while there may be no other immediate ways for an individual to get help. (Karen Brown, NPR)
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