A Global Overview of Research Funding in 2016/17- What has changed?
It has been a documented trend within the scientific community that countries in which the government funds research by means of federal or mandatory reserves are better able to foster innovation and set global standards of quality, compared to governments who fail to prioritize research funding and then suffer scientific 'brain-drain'. As the outgoing US President's latest budget for research and development is released, we take a look at the situation of government-backed research funding around the world, and what the near future may hold.
A quick overview of Obama's R&D Budget for FY 2017 indicates the plan adheres to the $1.07 trillion cap for discretionary spending that was enacted into law in late 2015, but also requests a significant amount of mandatory spending, mostly aimed at programs that have historically not been funded this way. This provides a mechanism to bypass funding caps on non-defense related research, most notably clean energy, neuroscience, cancer research, climate-science and water research. The overall budget proposal includes a massive 62.9% of mandatory spending. What's important to note is that most R&D is typically contained in the discretionary budget. Unless the proposal is accepted and passed, agencies like National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA and US Department of Agriculture will face a significant drop in budget.
This has a direct impact on these agencies' ability to support academic-level research. NIH got a boost in federal funding in FY 2016, yet NIH's capacity to fund research is still lower than it was before sequestration (mandatory budget cuts) prior to FY 2013. While biomedical research still continues to benefit from Federal R&D spending, there are concerns among advocates about the steep fall in basic and applied research public funding in US, which impacts fields like cybersecurity, quantum information technology and battery technology.
In Canada, while the newly elected Liberal government has pledged to increase funding to academic institutes by $2bn this fiscal as well as increase tuition grants for low income families by up to 50%, little is specified about direct federal funding for R&D. Federal spending has seen a steady decline, and experts in higher education are wary about being optimistic too soon. As recent as August 2015, massive spending cuts were announced to MD/PhD program of Canadian Institutes of Health Research, signaling that the end is near for the 30-year program that encouraged specialists to combine medicine with innovative biological research.
The UK, as recently as Nov 2015 was spending 1.7% of its GDP on science and research, which is still behind Germany (2.8%) and USA (2.9%). There are concerns however, that the 5-year budget freeze on spending (in cash terms) will have negative impact on the already low funding facing many research institutes in the UK. Biotechnology and microbiology sectors however, will continue to receive funding as expected in 2017, with centers like the Crick's Institute in London set to make it easier for researchers to focus on long term goals.
Further south, the Australian government has faced criticism for failing to support the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) that announced over 275 staff job cuts in February due to lack of funding. A further proposed 20% cut from federal funding for universities has alarmed the academic and scientific community alike.
India fares better despite the stagnation in federal spending and massive inflation, with the 2016-17 Indian budget proposal pledging up to 12% increase in R&D budget on Biotechnology alone. Collaboration with global academic institutes has allowed innovation to thrive in India despite a disproportionately small percentage of GDP being spent on research. Chinese federal funding for research is focused on quantum computing, cybersecurity, gene sciences and brain research, as indicated by China's new spending plan, released in March.
The situation in EU however is vastly different from that of other countries. As member states rely mainly on the collective EU for non-defense R&D funding, recent statistics offer little hope for the immediate future. Between 2008 and 2014, central and eastern European countries and Greece saw anywhere between 5 to 40 percent reduction in research funding, with Greece, Hungary and Latvia facing the worst cuts. These cuts were attributed to both reduction in national, as well as EU-level funding. The latter will only get more competitive as EU struggles to stay ahead in research.
While a changing political climate, increased competition and alarmingly high dependency on private research funding can affect innovation fostered at research centers, we cannot underestimate the importance of national-level funding for R&D. It may be the single factor that determines a nation's competitiveness and economic stability in the future. The research community on the other hand, must continue to advocate for more opportunities, while acknowledging that some innovations must pay off in order to pave the way for others.
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Understanding Sensory Neurons and Pathways that Control Mating Choices
Researchers at UC Berkeley have published a multidisciplinary study that aims to identify the different classes of chemosensory neurons that detect sex-specific pheromones and are responsible for courtship decisions. The study was performed in Drosophila (a genus of Fruit Flies) and combined aspects of anatomy, calcium imaging, optogenetics and behavioral studies. Laserglow's 635nm LabSpec Laser was used as an excitation source.
Courtship displays are seen throughout the animal kingdom. Male fruit flies, belonging to the species Drosophila melanogaster, also perform courtship rituals toward female flies however, this behavior isn't observed towards male flies. Male flies detect pheromones by means of two sets of sensory neurons: one set that detects female pheromones and promotes courtship, while the other detects male pheromones and inhibits courtship. This study aims to understand how these sensory neurons controlled courtship behavior. The experiment identified several neuronal pathways that send signals to either excite or inhibit a central target, called P1 neurons. In the presence of female pheromones, the male's P1 neurons are activated, while the same P1 neurons are inhibited in presence of a male. The researchers suggest that this balance of excitatory and inhibitory signals controls a fly's decision to court. The researchers used a combination of cell-labeling, thermal ablation and imaging techniques that included stimulating neurons with red laser light to observe physiological response. The results indicate that it will soon be possible to identify circuits that act downstream of the P1 neurons and how P1 neurons integrate signals from different senses.
This study is among one of many that aims to map neural pathways involved in the mating decisions of complex animals. The researchers believe that what we learn from studying animal neurology may one day have a significant impact on studying progression and treatment of neurological disorders in humans. This study was first published on eLife in Nov 2015. To find out more about the experimental setup, go to: eLife Full Paper
LIBS-based Device Scans Ocean Floor for Metal-Rich Minerals
Laser Development and Material and Processes departments at Germany's Laser Zentrum Hannover (LZH), together with eight European partners are developing a laser-based, autonomous inspection system to locate natural resources on or under the seabed. The project aims to detect soil samples, like manganese nodules and analyze material composition in situ. The researchers claim that such systems will enable mapping of mineral compositions of sea beds easily at low cost, and have a minimal impact on the environment.
In the setup, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is equipped with a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS)-based analyzer. The AUV is also equipped to create 3D maps of the seabed, and is built to withstand tremendous amounts of pressure underwater. The developers used knowledge gained from LZH's previous mission exoMARS, wherein a LIBS-based system was sent to Mars to analyze surface samples.
This project involves technical experts from many disciplines- like oceanography, 3D cartography, biogeochemistry, various engineering disciplines and laser sciences. The device will be scanning ocean floors till 2020. Read more at:
LZH full press release