Why the lack of spending on neuroscience? A comparison with cancer research spending, and a neologism (‘malbrain’).

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the U...
Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Previously, I wondered why there is no hue and cry about the loss of research budgets for neuroscience. Comparing research spends between areas is not easy. This paper (Sobocki et al., 2006) has some data:


This article is a markedly condensed summary of a longer report [Resource allocation to brain research in Europe (RABRE), part 2] that is simultaneously published on line: (i) as supplementary material linked to this European Journal of Neuroscience article (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/loi/ejn) and (ii) on the website of the European Brain Council (http://www.europeanbraincouncil.org/publications). We have recently shown that brain diseases account for 35% of the overall disease burden and cost European society almost €400 billion per year (a billion is understood to mean one thousand million throughout this report). The aim of the present study was to estimate funding for brain research in Europe and the cost–benefit of further investments in this area of research. The assessment of funding included public sources (governmental agencies plus charities) and industry funding. The assessment of publicly financed research support for brain research was based on a comprehensive survey, and industry investment in brain research was assessed based on published data on pharmaceutical development. The total funding of brain research in Europe was estimated at €4.1 billion in 2005, of which public grants amounted to < €900 million. Thus, industry funding accounted for 79%. Although cancer only incurred 50% of the cost of brain diseases in 2005, public grants for cancer research were almost twice as high as the public financial support of brain research. US-based funding of brain research was almost four times higher than European funding. We assessed the cost–benefit of further investment in brain research using different methods. They all showed that increased investment in brain research is likely to be highly cost-effective. We conclude that European spending on brain research, particularly public spending, is low compared to other fields of research and to the US, and that increased investment in brain research seems warranted. (highlighting added)

In the US, the National Cancer Institute‘s annual budget is about $5.8 B, whereas the National Institute of Mental Health‘s annual budget is about $1.4 B.

Why is there such tremendous disparity in public and private research spending on cancer, compared to brain research? There are historical reasons for this. In 1971, President Richard Nixon, for example, famously inaugurated the “War on Cancer”, setting off a decades-long research programme in fundamental and applied research in the area of cancer. The pharmaceutical companies have not been closing their oncology research divisions. The question again must be posed, why does this disparity exist?  The prospect of having cancer, living through cancer, or dying from cancer is something that is real and immediate. There are actually many different cancers, several hundred by current estimates, each with different phenotypes, life history, risk factors, gender-specific issues, and many other differences. But nonetheless, cancer is understood by the public at large, by the political establishment, by the pharmaceutical companies and a host of other stakeholders as a single-word issue of great and pressing concern to all members of society. There is no such counterpart word available for the diseases of the brain, and no similar urgency in ensuring that there is substantial research spending for brain diseases. Is there a branding issue? Does neuroscience need a single unifying word for all diseases and disorders of brain structure and function? One that also destigmatises issues surrounding mental health? Perhaps there is a need for such a word. How about ‘malbrain? More in the next post.

[update: here are some UK figures:

Combining the annual costs of health and social care, dementia cost £10.5 billion, compared to £4.5 billion for cancer, £2.7 billion for stroke and £2.3 billion for CHD. After combining health and social care, informal care and productivity losses, dementia also had the highest annual cost at £23 billion, followed by cancer (£12 billion), CHD (£8 billion) and stroke (£5 billion). However, despite this, funding for research into mental illness continues to lag behind that spent on other illnesses. For example, £590 million is spent on researching cancer, while only £50 million is spent on dementia.]

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

One thought on “Why the lack of spending on neuroscience? A comparison with cancer research spending, and a neologism (‘malbrain’).

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