Professor Peter Schofield’s Response to Proposed ANU Neuroscience Closure
Neuroscience is the understanding of the brain, and of our neurons, which collectively underpin our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. When our brain fails, it manifests in diseases and disorders for which the burden is immense.
The cost of the burden of brain-related disease in Australia is in excess of $74 billion per annum. This comprises mental health disorders and suicide at $33.6 billion each year, neurological disorders cost over $30.5 billion, and substance use disorders almost $10 billion. Sadly, in the future, the burden of brain disorders will have a greater cost to the Australian economy than heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease combined.
Neuroscience also underpins neurotechnology, the translation of brain research into specific innovation, commercial applications, and new industries. Success stories abound and include Axon Instruments, Cochlear, the Bionic Eye, Saluda Medical, Cogstate and others.
Australia has a proud history of neuroscience, with the Australian National University (ANU) as one of our most esteemed leaders. Now we are facing the proposed closure of the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience, the legacy of Sir John Eccles who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the most basic neuroscience, by defining how neurons communicate through both chemical and electrical signalling within the brain. ANU’s neuroscientists have included three distinguished former Presidents of the Australasian Neuroscience Society and most recently Australia’s former Chief Scientist.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused deep financial pain to all universities. There have been fewer students, and greater costs as teaching moved online. Students from across the world choose our prestigious universities because of our research-infused teaching. The pandemic has left Australia’s universities with difficult funding decisions.
But this is not the time to abandon our rising research stars or force a brain drain. This is the time to shore up the critical importance of neuroscience research for Australia. This is the time to ensure neuroscience remains a priority on the national agenda. We have so much to gain from the study of the brain. Research contributes to both our health and wealth.
Thanks to our culture of research in neuroscience, people with brain disorders, such as mental illness, are today far less stigmatised and no longer institutionalised as they once were. Thanks to neuroscience, we are on the way to understanding the neurological conditions associated with ageing such as dementia. With 22% of our population aged over 65 by 2057, it is the brain which holds the key to extending our healthspan to match our lifespan.
The great Sir John Eccles once said “brain research is the ultimate problem confronting man”. Let’s not gut our ability to solve the problem.
Professor Peter R Schofield, AO FAHMS PhD DSc
President, Australasian Neuroscience Society
CEO, Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA)
[The statement above was originally published in The Australian on 19 March 2021, which can only be viewed with a subscription.]