Rafael Yuste: More Bucks for the BAM
Dr. Rafael Yuste, a well-known researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Columbia University), has been at the center of the mega-neuroscience effort to create dynamic maps that would characterize the dance of neuroelectric activity underlying perception and behavior in animals (with aspirations toward human brains). He participated in the Kavli Institute conference from which the plan sprang, and led the authorship of the two papers (one in Neuron and one in Science) that outlined the proposal for the public at large. In corners of the twittersphere/blogoverse the response to this plan has been rather tepid, with many authors worried about the appropriateness and practicality of the aims as well as the perceived antidemocratic nature of the planning. I contacted Yuste by email to ask him about these and other questions. His responses were generally terse and often referred to previous statements in the two papers, but they do provide some additional insight into the process and promise of this presumably multibillion dollar project.
When asked if he followed the response to the brain activity map (BAM) proposal in social media and given an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions, he suggested that some neuroscientists have criticized the project because they believe it could reduce their own funding. Yuste argues instead that neuroscience funding is not a “zero-sum game,” and that neuroscientists should welcome it as a catalyst for new revenue. He denied that providing for BAM would necessarily require syphoning money from other research and pointed out that the BAM planners “requested funds come from additional sources, perhaps by an act of Congress.”
As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, the optics of releasing the two BAM proposals behind paywalls (at least initially) seemed designed to raise the hackles of the many open access proponents among the tweeting hoards. Yuste pointed out that the Neuron paper had already been made available and that the BAM planners were working to open access to the Science paper as well. He insisted that their recommendations were for all BAM data to be open and publicly accessible online even before any publications.
Pointing to criticism of the project planning as insular, I asked Yuste how he would reassure the community that the funding process would be open and transparent. He rejected the premise of the question outright, insisting that the BAM proposal was developed over the course of 4 separate workshops involving a group of about 100 scientists, both men and women, who vigorously debated the merits of the proposal against hundreds of other ideas. He pointed out that the BAM plan cleared a final vetting round against a field of about 20 other proposals, with support from NIH, NSF, DARPA and White House representatives. He said it was “a clean shot without any agenda,” and that the team worked very hard to “generate a coherent proposal and integrate everyone’s input.” He contends the process was an excellent example of democracy in action, and an illustration of “grass-roots activism” at work influencing the political agenda.
Another thread to the recent criticism of BAM is that its goals are too vague and lacking in concrete hypotheses. As I have also argued, Yuste contends the project is not meant to be hypothesis-driven, but rather an effort to develop tools that can be uses by anyone to test “whatever hypotheses they want” in whatever animals they choose. He also rejects the criticism of Parth Mitra (and others) that brain activity mapping should wait for a more complete understanding of underlying circuit connectivity. He believes that activity mapping and connectomics can proceed in parallel with tremendous benefit to both endeavors.
All in all, Yuste seems mystified by much of the criticism of the BAM project, which he considers to be based on misconceptions and unfounded fears of scientists who think they will lose their own funding. In fact, in dismissing the opposition, he blithely asserts “It’s hard to argue with building better tools to acquire new knowledge.”