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Does Obama's BRAIN initiative have a chance?

“None of this will be easy,” President Obama quipped Tuesday while unveiling his proposal for a $100 million brain science initiative.
Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

“None of this will be easy,” President Obama quipped Tuesday while unveiling his proposal for a $100 million brain science initiative. “If it was, we would already know everything there was about how the brain works, and presumably my life would be simpler here.  It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington. We could prescribe something.”

The goals of the so-called BRAIN initiative are of course broader than that. As the president describes the project, it will spark innovation, create jobs, stimulate the economy and foster a “thriving middle class”―all while helping us prevent and treat autism, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and schizophrenia, not to mention stroke, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Noble aspirations, to be sure, and hard to argue with. Even Eric Cantor opposes Alzheimer’s and joblessness. But none of this will be easy, either logistically or politically. As a practical matter, no one expects a $100 million federal investment to unlock the mysteries of the human mind; the successful Human Genome Project took 13 years and $3.8 billion in public support. And in the current political climate, even the president’s modest request may hit congressional roadblocks unless other programs are gouged to pay for it. Congress holds the trump card.

As outlined by the White House, the BRAIN initiative will be funded through three federal agencies―the National Institutes of Health ($40 million), the National Science Foundation ($20 million) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ($50 million)―with private research institutes putting up similar sums ($60 million from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, $30 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, $28 million from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and $4 million from the Kavli Foundation).  The actual research would be conducted by outside grantees selected through a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

Unlike the genome project, whose sole objective was to sequence a human being’s worth of DNA, the BRAIN initiative still lacks specific deliverables. The general goals are to develop technologies that can show how brain cells and neural circuits store and manage information in real time, and then use those technologies to “shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.” An outside working group, led by researchers from Stanford and Rockefeller Universities, will devise the plans, budgets and schedules needed to translate that broad agenda into concrete action.

In announcing the initiative, President Obama hailed the United States as “a nation of dreamers and risk-takers” who “do innovation better than anybody else” and “can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.” But China and the European Union are both actively pursuing this dream.  European scientists have embarked on a 10-year, $1.5 billion Human Brain Project with support from the European Commission and 80 international research institutions. And China’s Brainnetome initiative has been producing a steady flow of research findings since 2004. Brain science has flourished here too, of course, but America’s bid to unify it is the smallest and youngest of the three. The European effort will likely reach the second of three phases before this one takes off.

And a recalcitrant Congress could still stifle the president’s dream. When Obama floated the BRAIN initiative in his State of the Union address, House Speaker John Boehner dismissed it along with the rest of the White House agenda. “This isn’t the agenda that Americans are looking for,” he said, “and many in the president’s own party won’t support it. In the House, we’re going to continue our focus on the American people’s top priorities―creating jobs and cutting spending.”

But the Senate may get behind the effort. Minority Leader Eric Cantor has actually endorsed the idea of decoding the brain―once in a February speech to the American Enterprise Institute and again this week in a three-part tweet from his communications director, Rory Cooper. “Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding,” he said―“by reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research into expanded medical research, including the expedited mapping of the human brain. It's great science.” In other words, let’s kill $250 million in sorely needed behavioral research in order to fund a $100 million brain-science initiative―even though the goal is to integrate these fields.

Cantor: "Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding, by reprioritizing the $250 million..." 1/3— Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) April 2, 2013

The administration could launch the BRAIN effort on its own, by spending money already in the agencies’ budgets. But crumbs from existing programs won’t sustain one the greatest endeavors in the history of science. “Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home,” the president said Tuesday. “Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else. . . . Or if millions of Americans were suddenly finding new jobs in these fields―jobs we haven’t even dreamt up yet―because we chose to invest in this project.” Without bold congressional action, America’s proverbial dreamers and risk-takers could very well miss this revolution.

Maybe we could prescribe something.

Watch the Sunday discussion on Melissa Harris-Perry about the Obama BRAIN initiative. Video is below, and on