What does neuroscience do in a global pandemic?

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What does neuroscience do in a global pandemic?


Dr. Michael Bale

Scientifica and University of Sussex

This year, perhaps more than any, has changed the lives of many people around the world. Buying food and going to school are now very different scenarios that many of us are still trying to tackle. Within our scientific community we have also been given challenges to how we continue to understand the brain and brain disease. As of writing, in April 2020, experimental research has stopped for many labs and that reveals several issues that we are going to discuss in this article.

The main issue is that of time-sensitive funding. Let’s start small and highlight how this affects projects in terms of an ongoing cost of facilities at variable tiers including lab space, power, network infrastructure and security. For in vivo labs and those dependent on animals, the maintenance costs take a significant jump. The funding cost here is met by a time cost, particularly in research projects where subjects must be trained on sophisticated behavioural tasks or are part of an ageing or dementia study. There is also a cost to the project in terms of those subjects that will not be used. In a small aside, please show some appreciation for those tending to the animals while work is stopped.

Another issue is how salaries provided through fixed term contracts to employees will be dealt with by funders. In theory, the salary has been promised over the course of the funded project, but the project suffers heavily if the downtime is not compensated for by project extensions.  You could imagine as project extensions are only really given in extenuating circumstances, there could be a rush on once restrictions get lifted. But how should funders handle this? Thankfully, many have already taken measures by offering help with lost time during self-isolation and caring for vulnerable people. In the longer term however, research funding bodies must have streams that last far into the future. There would be too much risk to blow all of the funds in 3-5 years for those projects to not yield anything that significantly advances our understanding. Some research funders protect themselves by strategically investing in markets to secure future funding and develop growth. This approach has some inbuilt uncertainty given the recent plummet in the value of investments.

I state the obvious here by announcing that neuroscience is expensive and there is currently an extremely strong argument that research funding, not just neuroscience funding, should be focused towards virology.  Thankfully though the medical research community knew about this already and was heavily funding epidemiology and infectious diseases.  This approach has accelerated vaccine development, putting us in a much better position to tackle COVID-19 than we would have been otherwise. The global reaction from governments worldwide has been on increasing infrastructure to cope with the rise of cases. Funding could be drawn to these efforts. The call to manufacture ventilators has seen many companies join the effort where they can. Scientifica have been 3D printing parts for face masks to be worn by front line staff working in the UK’s NHS.

There are more positive outcomes that have and can be achieved during this period of time. There have been a plethora of online seminars and workshops popping up. At Scientifica, we have been particularly interested in the series put together by PicoQuant, as well as the following:

There could be a little more time for collaboration. Most importantly, I believe researchers should be considering the exit strategy as it will be a very busy period of time on the other side of the pandemic. Once everyone has got to grips with online teaching, perhaps we take some time for some reflection. For example, I can look into those weaker parts of my knowledge, I can review that literature, I can draft that grant, I can look into that experiment and I can look into that technique. Scientifica are still working, still here to support you in your research aspirations and solutions to that dream experiment.

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