A country that can still think big


For a variety of reasons, I love stuff like this.

Today, at a White House event, the President unveiled a bold new research initiative designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain. Launched with approximately $100 million in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative ultimately aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.

The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.

The rollout of the BRAIN Initiative is brand new, and there are details to be worked out, but the White House’s general pitch is straightforward: using a modest-but-significant investment to map brain circuits in an effort to “show how millions of brain cells interact.”

What’s the goal? In the larger sense, brain mapping can lead to breakthroughs on treating ailments like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy, but part of what’s invigorating about an initiative like this is that it’s open-ended – science can help shape its own goals as they learn more through the research itself.

Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the N.I.H., described by the officials as a “dream team,” and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.

So, why do I love stuff like this? A few reason, actually.

The first is the obvious benefits associated with research like this. The potential for medical breakthroughs is extraordinary.

Second, something like the BRAIN Initiative reinforces why taxpayer-financed research is supposed to exist in the first place. The nation could wait for private research, but at least in the short term, there’s no real profit to be made, so there’s very little incentive for market forces to create the demand. What’s more, even if the private sector wanted to do groundbreaking brain mapping, it’s preferable to have this kind of information publicly available to everyone.

And third, I sometimes think about this promo piece Rachel did a while back.

This “Lean Forward” promo came out in 2011, and it featured Rachel making a larger argument about Hoover Dam. For those who can’t watch clips online, here’s what Rachel said in the spoy:

“When you are this close to Hoover Dam, it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a human project. You can’t be the guy who builds this. You can’t be the town who builds this. You can’t even be the state who builds this. You have to be the country that builds something like this. This is a national project. This is a project of national significance. We’ve got those projects on the menu right now. And we’ve got to figure out whether or not we are still a country that can think this big.”

The BRAIN Initiative is a national project, it is a project of national significance, and I’m thrilled when we demonstrate that we are still a country that can think this big.

A country that can still think big