BRAIN Initiative (née BAM) Made Officially Palatable
If you had any qualms about the media savvy of the proponents of the-project-formerly-know-as-BAM, you can now rest assured, because now “There’s an infographic for that.” And with that infographic, came a nice White House announcement, in which President Obama said all the right things about our national talent for “ideas [that] power our economy,” and how greater understanding of the brain could help people with Parkinson’s, epilepsy or PTSD (veterans, of course). The project is now called the BRAIN Initiative, a backronym awkwardly spelled out as Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, and for the moment it is conceived as a $100M project seemingly guided by the earlier proposals, but employing a dream team of scientists over the next year or so to define appropriate aims. Within the government, funding will be coming from NIH, DARPA and NSF, with collaborative efforts from private foundations like the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute. In a live feed twitter answer session, NIH head Francis Collins, reassured twitterverse interrogators (myself included) that funding would be from discretionary accounts and not from current research. He also emphasized that the BRAIN Initiative would follow the open access model of the Human Genome Project (HGP) by striving to make quality raw data available online to all interested researchers, regardless of intellectual property concerns.
When the original trial balloon was floated, the budget was said to be comparable to the HGP, which was estimated to have cost near $3B over ten years, so many critics were deeply skeptical about the possibility of drumming up $300M a year for systems neuroscience without sucking the life out of everything else. With today’s announcement of a more modest budget and a presumptively open/competitive proposal process, some of the open hostility among the science twitterati has calmed, perhaps reflecting the opinion that if it’s a boondoggle, at least only a $100M boondoggle.
Personally, while I still think the timing for this sort of work is good, this funding level is much less likely to produce the sort of transformative innovation in the field that has been suggested by earlier versions of the plan. As I’ve mentioned before, the translational medicine line of justification for the project has always been the most tenuous, and at this funding level, that is even more true. Three billion dollars would not have solved the human brain in a way that would fix diseases like epilepsy, and $100M certainly won’t either. Even more than before, this continued strategy of promoting basic science on the promise of curing human disease runs a very serious risk of alienating the public from both pursuits.