What neuroscientists should know—and what they can do—about changes to BRAIN initiative funding

Many grant proposals submitted to the program in the past year are unlikely to be funded, according to people within the National Institutes of Health. But scientist advocates are reaching out to congressional representatives to try to make changes for 2025.

Hands pull apart a pie chart.
BRAIN drain: Researchers who recently applied for BRAIN Initiative grants have been encouraged to seek funding elsewhere, because of cuts to the program's budget.
SvetaZi / iStock

Last month, the U.S. Congress finally passed the remaining pieces of the spending package for fiscal year 2024, narrowly avoiding a partial federal government shutdown. The agreed-upon budget, which funds the government through 30 September of this year, lowered funding for one of those items, the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, by 40 percent from the previous year.

The BRAIN Initiative has spawned a host of programs, such as the FlyWire Connectome, and has awarded 1,575 grants since its launch in 2013. The new decrease in spending has thrown the U.S. neuroscience field into a period of uncertainty.

“It’s disappointing, but that’s where I think it’s important that people are not giving up; where people are focusing on the impact that neuroscience overall has,” says Representative Earl Blumenauer, a congressman from Oregon.

The Transmitter talked to scientists and government officials to learn what researchers should know about this budget change and how it might affect their work. Here is a summary of the key points from those conversations.

What prompted the dramatic drop in spending?

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget request included $680 million for the BRAIN Initiative—identical to the program’s 2023 level. And a Senate report introduced in July of last year similarly recommended $680 million for the BRAIN Initiative.

But that level of spending would have required Congress to increase the program’s base allocation to compensate for a $278 million drop in the amount it received from the 21st Century Cures Act during the current fiscal year.

Instead, base funding for the initiative remained at fiscal year 2023 levels in the final congressional budget, resulting in a net decrease for the program.

What does that mean for BRAIN Initiative-funded projects?

The changes to the budget mean that some existing and new projects may not be funded, John Ngai, director of the BRAIN Initiative, told The Transmitter via email.

“Although efforts are underway to identify supplementary sources of FY24 funding from the neuroscience-focused Institutes and Centers, given this current climate, it’s not possible for NIH to offset the $278M or 40% drop in BRAIN Initiative funding. As good stewards of taxpayer dollars, the BRAIN Initiative is doing its best to manage the decrease in funding by carefully prioritizing projects in a way that will minimally disrupt the momentum it has created in the field of neuroscience,” Ngai wrote.

Researchers who applied for BRAIN Initiative grants that are no longer funded received an email last week stating that the grants have been deactivated, according to an email forwarded to The Transmitter by several neuroscientists who had received it from one of the BRAIN Initiative programs.

More recently submitted grant proposals are also unlikely to succeed at this stage, according to the email.

That leaves researchers in a challenging position, says Michael Dickinson, professor of bioengineering and aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology. He was notified on 26 April that the BRAIN Initiative grant that he applied for in June of last year was unlikely to be funded. The application was highly scored last fall, Dickinson says, and he had continued experiments and retained staff with the expectation that it would be funded.

“I had a staff member of my laboratory who turned down a job” to continue working on the project, he says. Now, Dickinson says he is scrambling to find another source of funding.

The email from the BRAIN Initiative program recommends that researchers look to other National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes and funding opportunities, such as the National Science Foundation’s program for Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience, to secure funds for planned projects.

Researchers can find more information on the BRAIN initiative website, which includes notices of changes to funding opportunities and some frequently asked questions about these budget changes.

What about next year?

The president’s 2025 budget request once again included $680 million for the BRAIN Initiative.

“The BRAIN Initiative has had an outsized impact on the field of neuroscience by providing novel tools and platform resources, not to mention new therapies for human brain disorders—if funding is restored next year (FY25) as proposed in the President’s FY25 Budget, we can get back to operating on a scale that has made it so successful and continue on our path of bringing cures to those who need it within our lifetime,” Ngai told The Transmitter over email.

But there are hurdles to overcome to secure that level of funding, and the current budget climate and the rising cost of science is going to make that difficult, says Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 caps discretionary spending for fiscal year 2025 at a mere 1 percent increase over that of 2024. And the 21st Century Cures Act, which provides one stream of funding for the BRAIN Initiative, is slated to contribute only $91 million to the BRAIN Initiative for fiscal year 2025—the act’s penultimate year.

“It’s a challenging budget climate to do anything discretionary. People are fighting to stay flat,” says Christopher Rozell, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who spoke at a congressional briefing last month that highlighted the impact the BRAIN Initiative has had over the past 10 years.

What can a concerned neuroscientist do?

The Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies for each of the two houses of Congress, both of which would appropriate funds to the NIH and BRAIN Initiative, are holding hearings for the fiscal year 2025 budget. The deadline for submitting written testimony for the record—which could make the case for why BRAIN Initiative funding needs to be increased—is tomorrow for the House and Friday, 24 May for the Senate.

The Society for Neuroscience also has a tool for advocates who want to contact their representatives to support BRAIN Initiative funding for fiscal year 2025.

The American Brain Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased support of brain research, is requesting that Congress fund the BRAIN Initiative at $740 million for fiscal year 2025.

The $740 million request is “ambitious,” but it makes sense, says Katie Sale, executive director of the American Brain Coalition. “BRAIN is in its 10th year, and there’s so much important science that’s come out of it.”

She and the coalition are supporting the efforts of senators who are circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter about the importance of the BRAIN Initiative, (a similar letter to the House has closed), and they are planning to submit written testimony to the two houses. Scientist advocates can reach out to their senators to encourage them to sign those letters, and to their representatives to support the program in general, Sale says.

Funding from the 21st Century Cures Act is finite, Rozell says. It was planned to help the BRAIN Initiative develop over 10 years—the first 5 years focused on technology development and the second 5 on implementing those technologies—starting with fiscal year 2016. The next steps may be to figure out how to transition the program to a different funding model, he says.

“We have not, as a community, talked about what comes next. If we want this type of funding to continue in some form in a sustainable way, it will take advocacy from the community.”

This article previously stated that funding for the entire BRAIN Initiative is finite. It has been corrected to reflect the fact that funding from the 21st Century Cures Act is what will expire.

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