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German scientists’ ‘dismay’ at VC’s plans for Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour

Published: 23rd February, 2021

Open letter to Professor Nishan Canagarajah,
President and Vice-Chancellor,
University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.

We write to express our profound dismay at the decision to close the “Mechanisms of Animal Behaviour” and “Systems Neuroscience” Groups in the Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour at the University of Leicester. This decision will severely harm the University’s ability to deliver quality education and to help ameliorate many pressing problems threatening global society. The arbitrary nature by which this decision was made will cause lasting harm to the University’s reputation as a research University and its trustworthiness as a steward of granting agency support. The effective abolishment of tenure that this decision represents will severely harm the University ability to recruit quality research staff in the future. 

The research in model systems, often invertebrate, carried out by some members of these groups may seem irrelevant to human medicine. However, the original animal from which all animals, including humans, evolved had neurons and muscles and performed behavior. Model systems and humans therefore use similar neurobiological mechanisms. Almost all our understanding of human neuroscience ultimately arose from model system research. Eric Kandel’s, Michael Roshbash’s, and Jeffrey Hall’s recent Nobel prizes for research on learning and memory in a sea slug and circadian rhythms in insects well demonstrate this continuity. Model system research is thus critical in understanding and treating disease. There is also increasing pressure to reduce the use of vertebrates in research (see BBSRC’s 3Rs). Non-vertebrate models may thus become more, not less, important for biomedical research, making closing groups using non-vertebrate model systems even more unwise. Animal Behaviour and Systems Neuroscience courses are also centrally important for medical students to learn the scientific process, and to have the opportunity to perform experiments on their own. 

Better understanding of Animal Behavior and of Systems Neuroscience is also critical for effective responses to the threats to global food security posed by climate warming, biodiversity loss, and insect predation. Indeed, two of the affected researchers, Drs. Matheson and Ott, are carrying out pioneering and pace-setting work in understanding the mechanisms that turn harmless solitarious locusts into swarms, the greatest food security threat to hundreds of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people. Ending this research could be interpreted as indicating a disturbing indifference by the University to this great human suffering and efforts to relieve it. 

This decision also seems to have been made not through a considered, case-by-case analysis of contribution to the University’s educational and research missions, but instead by a stroke of a pen based on what are largely labels of convenience. We have all served as international grant application reviewers. These applications typically include a statement on “suitability of research environment and working conditions”. That employment decisions at the University of Leicester are now based not on an analysis of research quality, but administrative whim, will send a chilling message to application reviewers and granting agencies. 

We believe that the administration is devoted to improving education and research at the University of Leicester. However, the present decision will have exactly the opposite effect, harming the University’s students, research mission, and international reputation. We urge the University to reverse this decision, and in future make such decisions using mechanisms that respect due process and are based on independent, objective assessment of quality and contribution to the University’s mission. 

Signed by 

Prof. Dr. Hans-Joachim Pflüger. Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Biology, Neurobiology, Königin-Luise-Str. 1-3, 14195 Berlin, Germany, President of the German Neuroscience Society, and former member of the Executive Committees of FENS, Fed. of Europ. Neuroscience Soc. and IBRO, International Brain Research Organization).

Prof. Dr. Ansgar Büschges. Institute of Zoology, Biocenter Cologne, University of Cologne (Uoc), Zülpicher Str. 47b, 50674 KölnGermany, UoC Vice Rector for Academic Career and Equal Opportunities; acting Vice President of Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes; acting head of DFG-funded Graduate Program for Neurosciences “Neural Circuit Analysis”, member of the board of DFG-funded Collaborative Research Center SFB1451 at UoC on Motor Control).

Prof. Dr. Paul Anthony Stevenson. Universität Leipzig, Faculty for Life Sciences, Institute of Biology, Talstr. 33, 04103, Leipzig, Germany, (Ombudsperson Leipzig University, international reviewer e.g. for the Leverhulme Trust, Royal Society London).

Prof. Dr. Harald Wolf. University of Ulm, Institute of Neurobiology, Albert-Einstein-Allee 11, 89061 Ulm, Germany, (reviewer for BBSRC, Whitehall Foundation, Koerber Foundation, former board member of the International Society for Neuroethology).

Prof. Dr. Volker Dürr. Bielefeld University, Faculty of Biology and Center for Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) , Biological Cybernetics, Universitätsstr. 25, 33615 Bielefeld, Germany,

Dr. Michael Gebhardt. Chair of Zoology, Technical University of Munich, Germany. /

Prof. Dr. Scott L. Hooper. Department of Biology, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701; since 2006 visiting professor (4 months/year) Universität zu Köln, 50674 KölnGermany, (former Chair Society for Neuroscience Theme D Chair, former member of 8 NIH, NIMH, or NSF grant review panels, ad hoc reviewer for multiple international granting agencies).

Prof. Dr. Geoffrey A. Manley, Oldenburg, Germany, (former Founding Head of Zoology at the Technical University of Munich and Speaker of the Collaborative Research Centre in Hearing Research Science, Munich).

Prof. Dr. P. Bräunig, Biology Department II (Zoology), RWTH Aachen University, Worringerweg 3, 52074 Aachen, Germany,

Dr. Jan M. Ache, Emmy Noether Group Leader, Neurobiology and Genetics, University of Würzburg, Biocenter,

Prof. Dr. Christine Köppl, Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Department of Neuroscience, 26111 Oldenburg, Germany.

Dr. Laurence H. Field (ret.), Dept. of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand,