Not the actual Faculty behind the BRAIN Inititiative

Not the actual Faculty behind the BRAIN Inititiative

The current President of the Society for Neuroscience (Larry Swanson) sent out a letter on behalf of the Executive Committee (Swanson, Moses Chao and Carol Mason) last friday. It encouraged the membership to get on board with the BRAIN Initiative recently trumpeted by the Obama administration. Swanson’s letter included:

While we should all continue to explore and discuss questions about the scientific direction, it is important that our community be perceived as positive about the incredible opportunity represented in the President’s announcement. If we are perceived as unreasonably negative or critical about initial details, we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started.

This is the kind of thought enforcement that should send academics and scientists round the bend, and graduate student Justin Kiggins of UCSD has offered up an excellent rejoinder, which reads in part:

To summarize your request, you think that we should disagree only in “our scientific communications channels” while ensuring that, to the taxpayers who will be funding this initiative, “our community be perceived as positive” about it. Not only do I find it offensive and patronizing that you would ask us to be disingenuous to the very public which supports our efforts, but I think that your request is short-sighted and undermines the work of neuroscientists who seek to cultivate a public that is informed and literate in matters of the brain.

The debate has already begun in the public sphere, whether you like it or not. And the public is looking to neuroscientists to make sense of the vague official announcements that have happened thus far. Will we actually fix Alzheimer’s in five years? Will we record from every neuron in the human brain? Why do we want to do this? Without our informed input to the debate, “we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started” due to bad reporting. While you ask us to stick to “our” channels of scientific discourse, like the paywalled journals and exclusive conferences that the public cannot access, it was only 4 days after the New York Times story broke that this gem of fear-mongering claimed that the Brain Initiative would allow Barack Obama to read people’s minds. If we don’t talk about the Brain Initiative, bad reporters will. And if bad reporters talk about the Brain Initiative, we risk creating a public which is fearful of the very work that we do.

Now, I didn’t read the part about official communications channels quite in the same way, although I don’t know what Swanson intended when he wrote:

SfN encourages healthy debate and rigorous dialogue about the effort’s scientific directions. Testing of assumptions, methodological debate, and constructive competition are central to scientific progress. I urge you to bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues, including the SfN annual meeting in San Diego this fall and The Journal of Neuroscience.

I’m going to choose to read the “our” as “anything available to the membership” as opposed to “SfN’s”. And my blog is my primary venue for discussing matters of my professional life. So “Cheers”, Executive Committee! Bravo for encouraging us, the membership of the Society for Neuroscience to engage in a healthy debate and rigorous dialog.

First up, what is the NIH’s skin in this particular game? All the newsmedia reports this as a $100M effort. The NIH site on the BRAIN Initiative provides a partial clue.

In total, NIH intends to allocate $40 million in FY14. Given the cross-cutting nature of this project, the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research—an initiative spanning 14 NIH Institutes and Centers—will be the leading NIH contributor to its implementation in FY14.

There’s some blah-blah there about DARPA and NSF so presumably some other outlay will be going in their direction (UPDATE: The infographic from Obama’s Whitehouse says $50M to DARPA and $20M to NSF….so they need some math lessons). It remains unclear to me (perhaps a Reader knows?) if these agencies will be making up the rest of the $60M for FY2014, let’s assume that for now.

$40M for the NIH Brain-related institutes to divvy up. To be administered by the Blueprint which has been in operation since 2004 and has produced this sort of outcome.

Blueprint Grand Challenges

  • The Human Connectome Project
  • The Grand Challenge on Pain
  • The Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network


Blueprint Resources

  • Neuroimaging Informatics Tools and Resources Clearinghouse (NITRC)
  • Neuroscience Information Framework (NIF)
  • Blueprint Resources Antibodies Initiative for Neurodevelopment (BRAINdev)
  • NIH Toolbox for Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function
  • Cre Driver Network
  • Gene Expression Nervous System Atlas (GENSAT)
  • Blueprint Non-Human Primate Brain Atlas
  • Blueprint Training Programs
  • Blueprint Science Education Awards

So you can see that the BRAIN Initiative is really only $40M for more of the same. Right? Back to the NIH site on the BRAIN Initiative.

Despite the many advances in neuroscience in recent years, the underlying causes of most of neurological and psychiatric conditions remain largely unknown, due to the vast complexity of the human brain. If we are ever to develop effective ways of helping people suffering from these devastating conditions, researchers will first need a more complete arsenal of tools and information for understanding how the brain functions both in health and disease.

A more complete arsenal of tools and information” is the operating concept here. Just like has already been produced…..

We have witnessed the sequencing of the human genome, the development of new tools for mapping neuronal connections, the increasing resolution of imaging technologies, and the explosion of nanoscience. These discoveries have yielded unprecedented opportunities for integration across scientific fields. For instance, by combining advanced genetic and optical techniques, scientists can now use pulses of light in animal models to determine how specific cell activities within the brain affect behavior. What’s more, through the integration of neuroscience and physics, researchers can now use high-resolution imaging technologies to observe how the brain is structurally and functionally connected in living humans.

Very true. Some of it funded by the Roadmap, no doubt. But read this history of the development of optogenetics, one of the hottest tools going at the moment. It is a classic weaving together of scientific information and techniques developed by many labs over an extended period of time. Not, I will note, from labs that set out to make optogenetics work. Different parts of the puzzle came together, yes, in an interval of single focus. In laboratories that were very well funded in the absence of any particular grants to develop optogenetics. This particular story is merely the latest in a long line of major innovations that were cobbled together around the edges of existing (robust) funding. The common denominator is well funded laboratories that managed to use the NIH project based funding system to sustain what is in essence a de facto program based funding reality.

And this passage from the NIH site has a really embarrassing confession of the bait and switch of basic science’s interaction with the people who control the purse strings, right? The TIME IS NOW! Yes, we’ve done all this AWESOME stuff with your money but it isn’t ENOUGH! We need MORE money to develop more AWESOME TOOLS (a veritable arsenal) and then we promise we’ll solve

Neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and traumatic brain injury, [which] exact a tremendous toll on individuals, families, and society.