Neuroscience has long lagged behind more-studied diseases like cancer and diabetes in translating basic research into new drugs. And that gap should widen in the near future, as several biopharma giants have cut back on costly neuroscience R&D in recent years including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and Novartis.
One likely, but not-often-explored explanation for the gap comes from an interesting statistic posted recently by Sally Rockey, Ph.D., NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, on her blog “Rock Talk”: The number of Ph.D.s focused on neuroscience research has risen sharply in recent years, jumping nearly 42%—from 297,000 in the 2006 academic year to 421,000 in AY 2011.
By contrast, the number of Ph.D.s specializing in biochemistry rose during those years about 5%, to 193,000 in 2011. Also steady has been the number of molecular biology Ph.D.s, though their number dipped 1.8% during that time to 214,000 in 2011.
Story C. Landis, Ph.D., director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), told GEN part of the increase reflects growth in interdisciplinary study as well as another more apparent reason—the growing number of neuroscience Ph.D. programs launched by research universities. Two decades ago, few neuroscience Ph.D. programs even existed. As of earlier this year, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Institutional Program had 125 member graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada.
“People who are doing molecular biology or biochemistry, and who as Ph.D. students are actually doing it in the brain and the nervous system, probably 15 years ago they would have gotten their degree from a biochemistry department. But now, they’ll get it from a neuroscience department or neuroscience program,” Dr. Landis said. “Over the last 25 years, instead of having a few neuroscientists in the physiology department, or the pharmacology department, or the biochemistry department, there are now neuroscience departments which bring together people with all the different expertise in one department.”
A Vibrant Field
NIH’s observation came some two months after NSF released figures showing that 818,000 neuroscience postdocs in academic year 2011, up about 27% from 645,000 in 2007.
“It’s such a vibrant field,” Alan F. Sved, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is chairman and professor in the neuroscience department. “It is a hugely important area given all of the relevant diseases and the opportunities to understanding how the brain works.
“There is a lot of interest in terms of academic institutions. There’s a tremendous amount of interest as it related to NIH. There’s a tremendous amount of interest as it related to drug companies,” added Dr. Sved, who authored SfN’s latest biennial survey of neuroscience graduate, postdoctoral, and undergraduate programs in the U.S. and Canada, released in April.
According to the survey, most graduates (65%) pursued further research training and accepted postdoc positions upon receiving their Ph.D.s. “There aren’t a whole lot of people getting Ph.D.s in these programs that then go on to be unemployed,” Dr. Sved said.
That may change for future graduates given the long-discussed glut of Ph.D.s and postdocs, the subject of two upcoming studies. Universities will be hard-pressed to maintain support for Ph.D.s and postdocs given state budget cuts and other financial pressures, as Donna K. Ginther, Ph.D., professor of economics and director, Center for Science Technology & Economic Policy at University of Kansas, told GEN in September.
Universities have sought to satisfy growing interest from prospective Ph.D. students—such as the growing number identifying neuroscience as their field of interest among applicants to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). VCU’s program admits students through a common portal, with first-year students remaining undeclared until the end of that year. Students interested in neuroscience have constituted the largest single group of applicants for the past two years, John W. Bigbee, Ph.D., the program’s director and a professor in VCU’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, told GEN.
The program currently has 18 students in the second year and beyond, as well as eight first-year students who have identified neuroscience. Students work with faculty in disciplines that include physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, genetics, and biochemistry. If the neuroscience program didn't exist, Dr. Bigbee said, those students would be affiliated with their other programs.
“To provide students with flexibility in their graduate training, many universities are going to umbrella programs rather than the traditional departmental/discipline-based programs, and neuroscience is usually one of these umbrellas. To some degree, this trend may account for the jump in neuroscience Ph.Ds,” Dr. Bigbee said. “Some students choose neuroscience because they see the degree as more versatile and will provide them broader job opportunities.”
He also noted that Dr. Rockey's blog had not included a comparison of pharmacology Ph.D.s: “Perhaps that steep increase may reflect the inclusion of those programs under neuroscience.”
The growth in basic neuroscience research can be seen partially in increased funding for grants in the specialty—up 5.6% between federal fiscal year 2009 ($5.32 billion) and FY2012 ($5.618 billion), and projected to inch up to $5.655 in FY 2014. That may not sound like much of an increase, except that HIV/AIDS grant funds rose just 1.8% during the period, while cancer funding actually dipped 0.1%. The FY 2009 total doesn’t include $848 million in neurosci grants funded by President Obama’s “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Brains and Budgets
The agency is also stepping up its neuroscience activity spending through the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, with the ambitious goal of revolutionizing what science knows about the human brain to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.
BRAIN was unveiled by Obama in April, with NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., in September approving high-priority research areas recommended by an advisory committee to BRAIN’s Working Group in an interim report; the group’s final report will come out June 2014.
Among adopted recommendations: generating a census of cell types; creating structural maps of the brain; developing new capabilities for recording large-scale neural networks; developing tools for circuit manipulation; and linking neuronal activity to behavior.
Dr. Collins “instructed his staff to use that to guide the development of funding opportunities for this year,” as in requests for applications for grants to be funded from $40 million NIH will set aside this fiscal year, Kathy L. Hudson, Ph.D., NIH’s deputy director for science, outreach, and policy, told GEN. At deadline, the requests were expected to come out later this month, with grant awards to be made in September 2014.
“I think the BRAIN initiative, at least in its early years, is a modest investment compared to the overall funding for neuroscience research, so I don’t anticipate it will have a dramatic effect on the number of neuroscientists. I think the current budget climate will have an effect on the number of scientists in general,” Dr. Hudson said.
The BRAIN initiative’s heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary research, she added, can be expected to produce future neuroscientists with training in multiple areas—“folks with training in neuroscience and informatics, neuroscience and computation, as well as neuroscience and engineering. I think that there might be, with time, some shift in the kind of neuroscientists that we have trained. But that would be a longer-term undertaking.”
NIH isn’t the only agency championing new neuroscience super-projects. In January, the European Union announced the €1 billion (about $1.4 billion) Human Brain Project (HBP), which in part will use medical informatics to identify biological signatures of brain disease, allowing for earlier-stage diagnosis and enabling personalized medicine.
While NIH and the EU say their efforts will accelerate development of treatments, such translation is years, if not decades away—and will have to follow years of additional basic research, which some newly minted Ph.D.s will be fortunate enough to work on. The main limitation for both BRAIN and HBP is tight government funding, which will limit how many Ph.D.s ultimately contribute to and benefit from the super-projects. And with big biopharma increasingly outsourcing R&D, smaller companies (with lower pay) and academia (where pay is also an issue) remain the most likely places where the Ph.D.s will get to carry out their research.