Why Some Scientists Aren't Happy About Obama's $3 Billion Brain Research Plan

The Atlantic Wire

The front page of Monday's New York Times carried a story by John Markoff on a research effort called the Brain Activity Map, a huge neuroscience undertaking that the Obama administration plans to invest $300 million in annually for the next decade. A joint project between federal agencies, private research foundations, and leading neuroscientists, the envisioned project would create a definitive map of interaction between the human brain's approximately 100 billion neurons. Advocates say the findings could improve our understanding of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, lead to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, and boost the economy. The President is expected to announce the Office of Science and Technology Policy initiative as early as March, making good on a segment from his State of the Union that teased a brain research program on the scale of the Human Genome Project: 

Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s ... Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.

Harvard biologist George M. Church — who participated in the Human Genome Project and has been tapped to work on the Brain Activity Map — thinks this project could be even more profitable, saying it "will probably get a lot more bang for the buck."

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With sequestration hovering over research like a blunt guillotine, you might expect scientists to be on board with Church and Obama, supporting such huge allocations. And you'd be right to think that plenty of them are cheering the windfall. But a cadre of researchers remain skeptical about this second "Decade of the Brain," expressing concern about the feasibility of the Brain Activity Map's goals and wondering whether this is the best use of federal resources. Let's look at a few of their objections. 

Too Many Eggs in One Basket

If there is money for frivolities like the Billion Dollar Brain Project, doesn't it show that NIH has too much money? ow.ly/hOPxu

— Weigel Lab (@WeigelWorld) February 18, 2013

@leonidkruglyak @markoff exactly we don't. Not sure why NIH is on one hand staring at an abyss while encouraging spending on one big project

— Benoit Bruneau (@benoitbruneau) February 18, 2013

someone has to go to congress and explain why basic research is so important, not pander to them with big science crap

— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) February 18, 2013

The Human Genome Project may have been a major success for man-on-the-moon level research projects, accomplishing its goals ahead of schedule and paying off the federal government's investment in spades. But the track record for similarly scaled research efforts is far from spotless. In fact, following his involvement in the huge "junk" DNA research project ENCODE, UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen argued against such "Big Science"  projects. "The lesson I learned from ENCODE is that projects like ENCODE are not a good idea," he wrote on his personal blog. "I think it is now clear that big biology is not a boon for individual discovery-driven science. Ironically, and tragically, it is emerging as the greatest threat to its continued existence."

The Feds Should Diversify Their Research Investments

Maybe Brain Activity Map as a "project" can just be PR to get more funding for neurosci work for us all?

— Jennifer B Schiff (@jbschiff) February 18, 2013

@ih_c_hi is this the best approach for neuroscience at the moment? what would the impact of 500 ERC grants for young brain scientists be?

— Dinos Meletis (@meletislab) February 18, 2013

Related to the first objection, this complaint holds that scientific discoveries are more often cobbled together piecemeal from many small studies than from billion-dollar research projects. And while it's great to see Church and his Brain Activity Map co-researchers secure such enormous funding, the rest of the research community will still be screwed if sequestration goes into effect next month. While the Obama administration puts together the Brain Activity Map funding package, university research leaders are warning Congress that automatic budget cuts threaten to ax "the discovery and innovation that fuels the economy."

It's Unclear What We Could Find With a Brain Activity Map

Baffled by the NIH Brain Activity Map Project. We don't understand the fly brain yet. How will this come to anything? nyti.ms/XkeczY

— Leslie Vosshall (@pollyp1) February 18, 2013

Brain Activity Map = Decade of the Brain Part II or the Prequel? nyti.ms/131o7gj Need goals/collaboration to succeed

— Brian Fiske (@bkfiske) February 18, 2013

Can someone explain to me what this is going to do differently? RT @sarcastic_f Obama's massive brain project? 'The Brain Activity Map...

— Kate Mills (@le_feufollet) February 18, 2013

Even in the post-Jonah Lehrer science writing landscape, neuroscience remains one of the hottest areas of inquiry. Pop-sci junkies just can't get enough when it comes to colorful fMRI scans, insights into different brain region functions, and the mind-altering effects of various neurotransmitters. But the fact is that neuroscientists still know very little about the brain. UC San Diego professor Ralph J. Greenspan, one of the Brain Activity Map researchers, admits as much in the New York Times article, saying, "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 brainwide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?" When the National Institutes of Health funded a substantial brain research effort called the Human Connectome Project last year, Nature's Jon Bardin reported

Many wonder whether the NIH is making a mistake. Researchers have yet to prove that MRI techniques can produce a reliable picture of normal connectivity, never mind the types of abnormal connection likely to be found in brain disorders, and some researchers argue that the techniques have not been adequately validated. “I would do the basic neuroscience before I started running lots of people through MRI scanners,” says David Kleinfeld, a physics and neurobiology researcher at the University of California, San Diego.

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