The influence of university research is evident across the spectrum of neuro-rehab practices, treatments and approaches.
Scientific endeavours on campus drive new drug development, a greater understanding of the brain and the robust data needed to support interventions.
But recent news points to several challenges which could limit university lab activities and their potential to improve our understanding and treatment of brain and spinal conditions.
Among them is a perceived shift in university research towards so called “Grand Challenges” or “moonshots”. A US report says universities are increasingly pooling their research resources into “these ambitious goals that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination, increase support for policies and investments that foster innovation, and serve as compelling ‘North Stars for cross-sector and multi-disciplinary collaboration”.
Grand Challenges often bring together funding from charities, industry and government and, according to the report, are a growing worldwide trend at universities.
They can involve vast sums of funding. UCLA, for example, has a vision to enable Los Angeles County to enjoy 100 per cent renewable energy, 100 per cent locally sourced water and enhanced human health by 2050. The estimated cost of this effort is US$150m.
Such goals provide stability to researchers, could potentially change the world – and generate great PR for the universities involved. They may marginalise less high-profile research areas, like brain and spine conditions, however.
As Times Higher Education (THE) reports, some academics are “uncomfortable with the amount of activity being centred on fashionable, big-banner goals such as curing cancer”.
James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, told the publication that the move towards challenge-directed research was “broadly positive” but also needs “close monitoring”.
He said: “Clearly there is a need to monitor quite carefully the overall balance of funding within the system and the underlying health of disciplinary fields or questions that are less ‘fashionable’ in policy terms – especially when, as now in the UK, you’ve got a significant shift towards new challenge-directed funding programmes across the system as a whole.”
Where would research into brain and spinal injuries and neurological diseases stand if every university joined the Grand Challenge movement?
Last year’s landmark Huntington’s trial was described by UCL’s professor John Hardy as “potentially, the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative disease in the past 50 years”.
Yet, despite proving that the defect that causes the disease can be reversed, it could hardly be described as “big banner” given Huntington’s relatively low profile in the public eye.
Although Huntington’s is a devastating disease, it is not afforded the same widespread recognition as MS or MND – which themselves deserve greater public awareness.
In the broad sphere of brain research, dementia is perhaps the Grand Challenge topic that most concerns people generally – understandably since there are now around a million dementia patients in the UK alone.
The Euro Brain Prize, a new grant for researchers, just awarded its US$1.2m pot to an Alzheimer’s study. The British government also recently added £40m to the UK Dementia Research Institute’s resources, taking its budget to £290m.
Hopefully research into lesser known diseases – and big banner ones – can co-exist and the perceived Grand Challenge threat does not materialise.
More pressing challenges facing uni research labs are skills shortages in various disciplines.
The UK reportedly needs 700,000 more lab technicians by 2020, according to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. A national training centre has been set up as a result, based at the University of Sheffield and backed by £1.1m in funding and investment.
There is also a lack of healthcare scientists, National Audit Office stats show. At the last count in 2017, the NHS needed 2,530 more scientists. Many of these roles are filled by university researchers and involve collaboration with higher education institutions.
Rapid progress in data acquisition technology has also created a dearth in data analysts and scientists globally.
The European Commission believes Europe needs around 350,000 more by 2020.
Funding and staffing university research labs in the UK has become a divisive sub-topic of Brexit as it approaches.
On one side are concerned university operators like Russell Group, which recently lamented a nine per cent fall in non-British EU PhD students. Most prominently on the other side of the Brexit / research debate is the great British innovator James Dyson, who is unshakable in his optimism.
In terms of funding, the UK government insists Britain will remain part of the £62bn Horizon 2020 programme, which supports cutting-edge science, until its end.
Meanwhile, in her Mansion House Brexit speech, the Prime Minister said: “The UK is committed to establishing a far-reaching science and innovation pact with the EU, facilitating the exchange of ideas and researchers. This would enable the UK to participate in key programmes alongside our EU partners.”
Brussels seemingly feels the same way, with European Council president Donald Tusk stating in March: “We invite the UK to participate in EU programmes in the fields of research and innovation, as well as in education and culture.”
The research community wants specifics. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), made up of 40 universities, institutes, companies and research charities, wrote to the government recently to urge a review of immigration policy to boost international research and attract new talent.
CaSE executive director Dr Sarah Main said: ”To relieve pressure on the system, roles on the Government’s Shortage Occupation List and PhD level roles should be made exempt from the Tier 2 visa cap. This would allow recognised skills shortages to be filled and would create the headroom to allow the visa cap to operate effectively for other business roles.”
Whether or not the government agrees will emerge in the coming months as the Brexit machinations speed up.
For now, there are plenty of pan-international research projects ongoing which offer hope for improvements in neuro-rehab.
The most recent example reaching NR Times centres around a blossoming relationship between the University of Melbourne and Imperial College London.
Having already collaborated on 4,000 papers with its Australian peers, Imperial has launched a special research group with Melbourne to develop new technologies to treat brain disorders.
Professor Simon Schultz, from the Department of Bioengineering, has won a grant through the UK government’s Rutherford Fund to bring three researchers from the University of Melbourne to his laboratory. We follow their work with interest.