Why Some Scientists Are Annoyed By Obama's Big Investment In The Brain

Business Insider

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that more than $100 million in funding for brain research will be included in his FY 2014 budget.

The funding is a part of the BRAIN initiative, which stands for "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies."

The gist of the project is that by funding innovative brain science we can figure out how to solve brain-related diseases like epilepsy, PTSD, Parkinson's Disease, and Alzheimer's.

It will also spur innovation and create entire fields of the workforce we can't even imagine yet, the president said.

This sounds like something that would get scientists all hyped up about their future careers, but not everyone's excited. There are a few reasons for that:

1) It's a huge amount of money that could be spent on a ton of smaller projects that people are already working on, but lacking future funding.

2) This comes at a time when the sequester has tightened the NIH and other science-funding organizations even more than they were already tightened.

3) Some of the projects might be used in scary brain-controlling ways with frightening ethical implications, says The Atlantic:

[Esquire's Luke] Dittrich noticed one of the proposed technologies the team may use would essentially be able to remotely and wirelessly control the human brain, if developed. While the intentions of this technology when used by the BRAIN team would be wholesome and for the good of human science, it's not hard to see how that technology could go horribly wrong if it ended up in the wrong hands.

4) While researchers know some of the possible projects that could be considered for this initiative, the goals of the project aren't clear cut. The NIH has assembled a task force of Cornelia Bargmann of The Rockefeller University, and William Newsome of Stanford University but they don't come up with a clear cut plan until 2014. 

5) It's plan is to focus on new technologies that make studying the brain easier, not actually doing the basic research that's needed to apply the technologies. In effect, the tests are being created before we know what the tests will look for. 

6) The brain project will be much more complex and intricate than the Human Genome Project, Ralph Greenspan, of the University of California, San Diego, told The New York Times back in February:

"It’s different in that the nature of the question is a much more intricate question," said Dr. Greenspan, who said he is involved in the brain project. "It was very easy to define what the genome project’s goal was. In this case, we have a more difficult and fascinating question of what are brain wide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?"

7) A very similar human brain research drive was just proposed in the European Union, called the Human Brain Project — 1.9 billion Euros, or U.S. $2.5 billion over a decade to simulate the human brain on a supercomputer.  Many researchers are asking, do we really need so much investment in the brain when there are plenty of other health, technology, and other research questions to be answered?



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