America can remain a leader in brain science, but only if we put our minds to it

America can remain a leader in brain science, but only if we put our minds to it
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This week, more than 30,000 of the world’s best scientists and physicians will gather in Washington for the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. I attended the very first meeting as a young postdoc in 1971 when just 1400 people participated.  

While there is certainly a sense of pride in seeing this event grow from its parochial origins into the largest neuroscience conference on Earth, there is also cause for concern. Although Americans have been in the vanguard of neuroscience research for years, we are in peril of losing our mantle of leadership.

The endeavor to map the human brain and unlock its secrets is now a worldwide race, with the U.S., European Union, China and Japan all actively engaged in massively ambitious, multi-year initiatives. As one of science’s great uncharted frontiers, understanding the brain’s full powers has enormous potential for developing everything from artificial intelligence to new treatments for scores of neurological and psychological disorders including autism, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, addiction and PTSD.


Such ambitions must be matched by strong support. Europe’s commitment is clear, with the EU pledging 500 million Euros — or roughly half the total budget — towards its Human Brain Project.  

The 15-year China Brain Project is a cornerstone of China’s priority for producing scientific innovation and is expected to invest in this project significantly. China has substantially increased its neuroscience research productivity — jumping from 11th in 2006 world rankings to second in 2015.

By contrast, the U.S. government’s commitment to science funding, and to its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro­technologies (BRAIN) initiative in particular, have been less certain.

A 2014 NIH report showed that the agency would need to invest $4.5 billion or $300-$500 million annually to fully fund its portion of the initiative. However, President Obama pledged only $110 million in total funds for its first year. While there are promising signs that Congress may fund the BRAIN Initiative to reach the funding target of $400 million, there is no long-term commitment to sustain this level of funding.  

Further, the Trump administration has shown outright hostility towards research funding, having proposed massive, crippling cuts to biomedical research this past spring. It was only through bipartisan Congressional defiance that many research projects, including the BRAIN Initiative, escaped the axe. The political volatility in Washington means that there are simply no guarantees for upholding research commitments in the future.

As our global competitors have increased their investment in basic research, the percentage of the U.S. federal budget devoted to research and development has fallen from around 10 percent in 1968 to less than 4 percent in 2015. If trends continue, reports indicate that China could surpass the United States in global R&D expenditures within the next ten years. The uncertainty in neuroscience research funding is emblematic of the danger the U.S. faces in losing its competitive edge in biomedical innovation.

Science is by nature competitive. The best minds gravitate to the best collaborators, best labs, best ideas and yes, the best funding. Other nations may see this as an opportunity to entice our most promising researchers away from America. In fact, it’s already happening. President Macron has explicitly invited U.S. climate scientists to work in France, with research grants of up to 1.5 million Euros. Several other countries have all quickly followed suit. If we do not adequately support our scientists’ work, brain drain will inevitably result, especially among our young and early-career researchers. We do not want American scientists to be outclassed or our innovation to be outsourced.

The good news is that we have already seen what can happen when our leaders put politics aside and invest in scientific breakthroughs.

The Human Genome Project, guided by current NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, succeeded because it had the support of both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses. Along the way, the Project has created an estimated $1 trillion in economic development and is advancing treatments for some of the most challenging diseases.

The same could be done with our understanding of the brain if our leaders make the long-term investments required to achieve this milestone. Time is of the essence.  Will America be the leader on brain science or get outsmarted by the rest of the world?

Dr. Leo Chalupa is the vice president of research and professor of pharmacology and physiology at the George Washington University.