Science, in general, and neuroscience, in particular, requires a lot of money. But why is (neuro)science so expensive? Where does all that money come from? And who decides how it is distributed? These are the questions we’ll be answering in this post.
The main reason behind the large expenses inquired by neuroscience comes from the expensive devices routinely used in brain research, as well as the high costs related to their upkeep. For example, did you know that a single MRI scanner costs ~€1 million? And if something breaks, the replacement costs are usually in the range of tens of thousands of euros? Other costs which are part of the research process involve, of course, the salaries of professors, postdoctoral and doctoral researchers, student assistants, lab assistants, technicians and other support personnel, but also publication fees (yes, scientists have to pay in order to publish their work in scientific journals and no, they don’t get any royalties), conference fees, and travel fees, among others.
Scientific funding usually comes from one of three sources:
- the government
- charitable/non-governmental organizations
- private companies
Recent data on the procentual contribution of each of these sources to neuroscientific funding is hard to come by, with the most recent study we found published as far back as 2007. This study showed that ~60% of brain research funding came from private and non-governmental sources, with the remaining 40% coming from the government.
Although the overarching goal of neuroscience is to understand the brain and develop treatments for mental and neurological disorders, the scope and procedure for obtaining funds are somewhat different between the three sources.
This type of funding is given to research labs, which are usually interested in basic research, i.e. research which advances our understanding of a certain topic, but doesn’t necessarily lead to quick commercialization. Mapping the various types of ion channels in the neuronal membrane, understanding how the gut microbiome communicates with the brain or determining the organization of the gustatory cortex are all examples of basic research.
In order to obtain this type of funding, researchers (usually senior ones, i.e. professors and group leaders) have to write grant proposals. These contain not only a detailed presentation of a novel idea grounded in the previously published literature, which has the potential for significantly advancing the field, but also a thorough cost breakdown (what equipment is needed and how much it will cost, how many people have to be employed as part of the project and what career level etc.), as well as a time plan. The proposals are then reviewed by a specialized committee and the successful ones (<~3%, on average) receive the funds. The money is then distributed to specific accounts (for example, one for equipment, one for personnel salaries, one for travel funds, one for publication fees and so forth), i.e. it can only be used for the specified purpose. Additionally, if, at the end of the year, funds from one account were not fully used, they are returned to the government.
Funds coming from charitable or non-governmental organizations have application procedures similar to governmental funding. Management of these funds and of the research itself, however, might either be conducted by the scientists who received the grant or could involve some oversight from the part of the charity. The main difference, nevertheless, lies in the scope of these grants. Usually, such organizations support research into specific and many times rare neurological disorders. For example, the CHDI Foundation is exclusively focused on therapies against Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurodegenerative disease which currently has no cure and no way to stop or at least slow down the brain damage.
Finally, private financing of neuroscientific projects comes, as the name suggests, from private companies, be them pharmaceutic giants or startups. These companies invest in research which can be relatively quickly brought to market, usually focusing on treatments for both mental and neurological disorders, as well as various diagnostic methods. While pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer or Amgen cutting their neuroscience divisions a few years back raised concerns that treatment progress in neuroscience would stagnate, there is still a large investment of the business environment in this direction and important results are already starting to show. For example, a few years ago, Spinraza became the first approved treatment for spinal muscular atrophy (a rare neuromuscular degenerative disorder). Another example is that various companies which have successfully used transcranial magnetic stimulation in treating major depressive disorder resistant to antidepressants.
It is important to note that no funding source is overall superior to the others. Without governmental funding, there would be virtually no significant progress in terms of basic neuroscience, which would lead to no progress in treatment research, because, as a general rule of thumb, we cannot begin to treat that which we do not understand. At the same time, without charitable and private funding, bringing discoveries from the fundamental neuroscience bench to bedside would be almost impossible, as every single potential treatment requires highly risky investments of billions of euros.
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Sørensen, P. S. (2007). Resource allocation to brain research in Europe. European journal of neurology, 14(6), 597.
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