If you are as concerned as we are about Montana having the tragic distinction of being No. 1 in the nation for suicide, then you understand the need for biomedical research on mental illness. Unfortunately, changes to the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience (CBN) at Montana State University (MSU) proposed by the MSU Administration could shutter active research on this problem and severely limit options for neuroscience research and training in Montana. These changes will deprive Montana students of a first-rate education in neuroscience, throttle a rapidly developing Montana bioscience industry and may delay or even prevent cures for mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders affecting our state. Most disturbing, restructuring this highly successful and popular program is completely counter to MSU’s Land Grant mission because it will deprive students from ranches and small towns across Montana of the educational opportunities afforded students from urban areas like Boston or San Francisco. That is unfair, the very antithesis of our Land Grant mission and a violation of our responsibilities as educators to the students who choose to attend MSU.
The underlying cause of suicide, mental illness, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis, PTSD, and opioid and other drug addictions is malfunctioning nerve cells in the brain. Clearly social and medical services are required to treat these conditions, but we also need biomedical research to develop cures and preventative treatments. This need, in Montana, across the US and around the world, has made neuroscience one of the fastest growing, exciting and rapidly advancing areas of biomedical research.
How can Montana be part of the cure? Almost twenty years ago MSU had the foresight to establish a department specifically dedicated to clinically-relevant basic neuroscience research. Since then CBN has graduated more than a thousand majors, many of whom are now highly successful scientists and physicians working in Montana and throughout the country to tackle these challenging problems. According to our students and alumnae, the CBN department has been an effective launchpad for MSU students, propelling them into careers helping to solve some of the most pressing problems facing Montanans today.
One example of CBN’s commitment to MSU’s Land Grant mission is our efforts, in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), to establish MSU’s Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery, a center specifically dedicated to developing new tools for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. CBN’s focus on neuroscience training and research has drawn neuroscience biotech companies to the Bozeman area, companies that, like our department, employ a substantial number of people from Gallatin Valley, and collectively have a considerable impact on the Montana economy. In fact, the negative economic impact to MSU and Montana associated with the loss of neuroscience research at MSU is estimated to be over $11.6 million per year (not including effects on the local biotech industry.)
While classroom education is an important part of undergraduate education, science education truly comes alive in the laboratory, particularly when students can work on their own research projects. CBN gives our students the benefit of intensive one-on-one interaction with faculty in our labs. The CBN labs currently have over $12,000,000 in open grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Finally, our Ph.D program, which the administration has repeatedly threatened to eliminate, cost neither MSU nor the state taxpayers a dime: CBN faculty support students entirely off of federal research grants, paying both tuitions and salaries. Cutting the neuroscience program will therefore not save any MUS funds. In fact, it would actually reduce tuition income, not to mention negatively impact MSU’s Land Grant mission to provide graduate educational opportunities to Montanans.
That MSU would even consider backing away from neuroscience research is both astonishing and disheartening. If we want these life-changing educational opportunities to continue to be available to our students, and for the important scientific advances that will help solve the problems of mental illness to be made in Montana, MSU must commit to its vibrant neuroscience community and support neuroscience research in CBN. If this is of concern to you, please contact the MSU administration, the Commissioner of Higher Education, the Governor and the Board of Regents.
This opinion is signed by the following faculty members in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Montana State University in Bozeman: Professor Frances Lefcort, Associate Professor Steven Eiger, Associate Professor Steve Stowers, Associate Professor James Mazer, and Professor Thom Hughes.