EDITOR IN CHIEF
University researcher and Associate Professor Amy Griffin has dedicated her career to studying the brain mechanisms underlying learning and memory. In 2015, Griffin, who was named 2014’s Neuroscientist of the Year by Delaware’s chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, received a five-year, $1.78 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support her research endeavors — endeavors that she hopes will further elucidate the inner workings of learning memory, and bring to light possible treatment options for behavioral disorders where these complex cognitive processes are impaired, like in Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, under President Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget outline, which proposes to reallocate billions of dollars from federal agencies to military and homeland security spending, the NIH, a primary source of funding for biomedical and public health research, stands to lose $5.8 billion from its existing 2017 budget — a reduction of 18 percent. To address this topic, Griffin sat down with The Review to talk about her work, the necessity for federal investment in the sciences and the value of research and discovery.
Ken Chang: Can you tell me a little bit about your research? What do you study?
Amy Griffin: Sure, I’m interested in the neural circuit that supports what we call “spatial working memory,” which is a proxy for human working memory — an ability that lets you hold onto information long enough for you to guide your behavior. So think of parking your car: You need to remember where your car was parked today and not where you parked your car yesterday.
KC: What do you hope to accomplish with your research?
AG: I’d say publications are the output that you want and expect from a research grant. Publications increase the visibility of the research programs offered here at the University of Delaware, so that’s always a goal I have in mind. The other aspect I like to focus on is training the scientists — the graduate students and undergraduates in my lab — so that they can learn the research process from beginning to end, setting them up for success in the next stage of their careers.
KC: As the recipient of a $1.8 million NIH grant, can you walk me through the process of applying for and receiving this award?
AG: It’s tough, especially when the pay lines, or the percentages of the grants are funded, are low, and they can be pretty low. Even now, even before any kind of cut happens, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult to get a grant funded, and the stakes are very high because if you don’t have a grant and you’re doing research, you don’t have a way to pay your people, you don’t have a way to buy supplies. The university can only provide limited support, maybe enough to get your lab started, but they can’t keep giving you $250,000 a year to keep your research program going. So it is necessary to have funding in order to have a lab, even if you don’t have a lot of supply expenses.
KC: Do you think you would be able to conduct your research without this source of funding?
AG: No. There are private foundations that exist that give out grants, but that can only support so much. In fact, those are even harder to get sometimes. You have to be in a very particular niche. Everyone can apply to these private foundations, so those tend to get even more competitive than they already are. A lot of researchers would be forced to close their labs in the event of a massive cut. These are scary times.
KC: Do you think federal investment in the sciences is important?
AG: Absolutely. It’s important, not just because it’s important to me because it’s my job and my career, but because of all the discoveries that have happened in the past 100 years. Think about the medical disorders, the psychiatric disorders, the treatments: There’s no way that we would know this kind of thing if it wasn’t for research and the funding of that research. It’s an expensive endeavor, but it’s really important, especially because of the large aging population we have in the U.S. We have a lot of people who are living longer, but maybe not necessarily having a higher quality of life because they are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related mental and physical ailments. And the thing is, there could be many more discoveries that could be made in neuroscience and medicine in general to help improve people’s lives. You have this whole workforce of really talented and creative people that could be put to use, which makes the proposal even more unfortunate.
KC: Do you foresee any repercussions, whether immediate or long-term, that might arise from cutting, or even limiting, NIH funding?
AG: It hits really close to home because I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, and I know a lot of people who would be affected by this directly. They would lose their ability to do research. Personally, I think the quality of my teaching has a lot to do with the hands-on experience I get from doing research itself. You need to have that hands on experience, I think, to be able to teach it. I think that the students would suffer as well, because they wouldn’t have professors who are “walking the walk.” They would just be teaching things that they read in a paper or a textbook, you know? There’s not that richness that you get from actually having the experience. Of course the other problem is a more global one, too. It will halt global progress in understanding disorders, and things like that. We wouldn’t keep learning about how the brain works, how the body works, how we interact with our environment. Things would just fall flat. All the questions that are being investigated right now would never be answered if we didn’t have these jobs, if we didn’t have people doing it.