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The State of Neuroscience: Uncertainty About the Future of Neuroscience Funding

Instead of being in classes this week, I had the pleasure of heading out to San Diego to attend the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. Every year a community of around 30,000 neuroscientists gather to present their research, meet up with old colleagues, form new connections, and talk about the future of neuroscience.

Just like the rest of the country, attendees of the conference were overwhelmingly focused on the recent election results. In every panel and poster session, throughout the convention this year it was hard to avoid the implications in Washington’s change in leadership.

They have good reason to be concerned. Science chiefly relies on public money to pay for basic research and development, with 85% of the funding used for neuroscience research coming from federal agencies, chiefly the National Institute of Health (NIH). While a common belief in the scientific community holds that NIH funding increases when Democrats are in power, the truth is more complex than that.

Historically, when the House is under Republican control, funding for science decreases by six billion dollars on average, or approximately one fifth of the total yearly NIH budget. Generally aligning with stereotypes, a Republican presidency means increased defense spending, and less spending on all other aspects of science-related research.

But this upcoming government as many, many think-pieces have already elaborated upon, is not a typical Republican-controlled cycle. Last year, President-elect Donald Trump said on a conservative radio show that, “I hear so much about the NIH and it’s terrible.” On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, one of his closest advisors, has repeatedly called for doubling the NIH’s budget.

In Congress, Republicans are frequently divided on this issue. The powerful and populist Freedom Caucus, whose supporters are partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s rise, wants to slash funding for scientific research by arguing that the NIH spends money on frivolous projects. The current director of the NIH, Francis Collins, fired back that the effective 22% in budget cuts over the last decade has slowed the NIH’s ability to respond effectively to health crises, such as the recent Ebola scare.

For neuroscience funding specifically, Obama’s tenure in the White House has been a positive development. In 2013, the Obama administration launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN Initiative, to dramatically increase neuroscience funding over the next decade in the hopes of making progress on various neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. This initiative has provided over 300 million dollars of funding a year to neuroscientists throughout multiple arms of government funding, and has already helped advance a deeper understanding of how the brain is wired through the Human Connectome Project. While the BRAIN Initiative has a plan laid out for the next twelve years, it is up to Congress to approve its continuing budget on a yearly basis.

While climate researchers have good reason to fear for their funding sources and defense agencies await a bump in their budgets, the future of neuroscience research is entirely unclear. While once previously considered a non-partisan agency, the NIH has increasingly needed to defend its decisions against criticism from primarily Republican opponents, and neuroscience research has specifically benefited from the Obama administration.

However, significant bumps in NIH funding in the years following the government shutdown from a Republican-controlled Congress may bode well for the future of research funding. Ultimately, it’s up to the Trump administration to decide if this vital research is worth continuing. Until then, neuroscientists will just have to wait.

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