The ANU has revealed proposals to dissolve its Eccles Institute of Neuroscience (EIN), stemming from a need to save $103,000,000 each year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The EIN – named after the University’s first Nobel Prize winner, neurophysiologist Sir John Carew Eccles, 1903-1997 – was launched in 2012, and currently occupies a wing of The John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR). It was completed following a redevelopment project of the JCSMR, which was constructed with the help of a $63,000,000 grant from the Commonwealth Government.

At a forum earlier last week, Dean of the ANU College of Health and Medicine, Professor Russel Gruen, presented the University’s ‘Change Management Plan: ANU College of Health and Medicine’, a component of the ‘ANU Recovery Plan’. Here, Prof. Gruen outlined that all ANU Colleges have been apportioned diminished operating budgets for 2021 and the foreseeable future. He said that the College of Health and Medicine’s portion for 2021 is $54,700,000 – roughly $12,000,000 less than the $66,000,000 the College expected to require for 2020, and $6,000,000 less than the $61,000,000 actually spent in 2020.

According to Prof. Gruen’s presentation, the ANU College of Health and Medicine no longer has enough finances to employ all its staff because 84% of the College’s operating costs are staff salaries. The College already condensed its staffing by over 30 positions since July 2020, however, the ‘Change Management Plan’ proposes a further reduction of staffing by an additional 22 jobs. 

Part of the College’s ‘Change Management Plan’ proposes that the College of Health and Medicine “will narrow its focus and concentrate its resources within biomedical research”. As such, in deliberating which areas of research the College of Health and Medicine should prioritise, Prof. Gruen said although the University’s EIN is of “high quality”, it “is not at a scale that enables it to be competitive with larger and more comprehensive centres of brain research elsewhere. Nor could it become so with the available resources in the foreseeable future”. 

According to Prof. Gruen, the College contemplated discontinuing medicine, or psychology, or population health entirely. However, such options were not pursued because the College believes these are essential, principal disciplines that “must flourish at ANU”, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important “synergies between physical health, mental health, public health, and human behaviour”.

Moreover, as stated by Prof. Gruen, an additional alternative considered involved distributing the reductions across the College of Health and Medicine’s Schools – i.e., a 15% reduction at the ANU Medical School, the JCSMR, the Research School of Population Health, and the Research School of Psychology. Ultimately, this consideration was rejected because no School would be capable of digesting such cutbacks “without major damage to their teaching and research missions”. The consequences of these could be a “slow and painful demise of each school at ANU”.

Instead, Prof. Gruen reported the ANU College of Health and Medicine has proposed to dissolve the EIN, an approach it says, will “minimise the impact of job losses, and ensure we can deliver on our core activities and strategic priorities”.

When approached by Woroni regarding the uncertain implications of the University’s proposal for currently enrolled Neuroscience students, an ANU spokesperson responded a “teach out plan” for all disturbed Programs, Majors, and Minors will be established by the College in deliberation with the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), the Dean, the Deputy Dean (Education), the relevant research School Directors, and the Associate Director (Education).

However, the ANU’s proposal to discontinue Neuroscience has received considerable backlash and criticism. On ‘ANU Schmidtposing’, a statement prepared by Honours and HDR Neuroscience students in response to the College of Health and Medicine’s announcement reads, “This reflects a decision that Neuroscience is no longer considered a priority by the ANU. This is misguided and we, the students of the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience, will be preparing a reasoned response during the current two-week consultation period”. The post further urges the use of the hashtag #saveEccles, to garner public support and emphasise that Neuroscience belongs in the ANU’s future.

Additionally, a group of Neuroscience students launched the ‘Protect Neuroscience at the ANU’ petition protesting the planned defunding of the EIN, calling for the University to “reverse” its decision. It argues disestablishment of the EIN would “diminish the ANU’s reputation” and would have a “direct impact on the development of treatments for neurological disorders and thereby on our everyday lives”. 

Moreover, the Australian Neuroscience Society has penned an open letter addressed to Prof. Gruen and Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt. They wrote, “As Australia’s flagship, federally-funded university, the ANU must find a way to continue support for the vital work of the EI”.

At this time, the ‘Change Management Plan: ANU College of Health and Medicine’ is a proposal now put to the entire ANU community for consultation and feedback. The consultation process formally began with the release of the ‘Change Management Plan’ on 17th March and is intended to close on 1st April. According to an ANU spokesperson, once this feedback is contemplated, a final implementation plan will be announced, and the University is “looking at a range of possible solutions, including consideration of feasible ideas that may be put forward during the consultation period”.