April 3, 2013
President Obama Introduced As ‘Scientist In Chief’ At BRAIN Initiative Unveiling
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
For even the most casual observer of the American political process, the term ℠American Exceptionalism´ is not unfamiliar. While the concept itself might seem somehow ethereal, the history of our nation and our exceptionalism, especially over the last 100 years, is tied to our commitment to scientific advancement.
Originally reported in February here on redOrbit, an anticipated new scientific initiative was formally unveiled yesterday by the Obama administration. The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, following in the same scientific footsteps as the hugely popular and lucrative Human Genome Project, will seek to understand and explain more fully the mysteries that each of us contain in our own heads.
Prior to taking to the lectern, President Obama was introduced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins as the nations “scientist in chief” for his commitment to funding this new and important project. President Obama first alluded to his administration´s intent to fund this project in his state of the union address delivered before Congress and the nation in February.
Speaking yesterday from the White House, President Obama stated, "The most powerful computer in the world isn't nearly as intuitive as the one we're born with. There's this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. And the BRAIN initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action.”
The BRAIN initiative will receive an initial funding block of $100 million in the Obama administration´s budget, due out next week. The administration now faces the daunting but important task of justifying this expense, especially in light of the difficult fiscal times we now find ourselves in. Obama and the scientific community contend continued investment in science is vital.
Judging from the last major scientific initiative funded by the US government, the Human Genome Project, this expense should even find support among the most fiscally conservative members of Congress, when you consider the significant impact each dollar spent on that project had on our economy. As mentioned in his state of the union address, Obama pointed out, “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. They´re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”
It is important to note, however, the BRAIN initiative is unlike the Human Genome Project in that it, as yet, has no clearly defined goals or marker that would signify the completion of the initiative. Those goals and benchmarks are going to be left up to the researchers and scientists involved in the initiative and, it has been postulated, may take longer than a year to clearly define and delineate.
Much like the Human Genome Project, this initiative is going to rely upon and enjoy major advancement because of the development of new tools that are currently non-existent and unavailable to neuroscientists. Soft goals for the BRAIN initiative include achieving marked progress in the treatment of diseases like Alzheimer´s and epilepsy as well as understanding and repairing traumatic brain injury.
It would be inaccurate, however, to claim the entire scientific community is onboard with the loosely defined goals and objectives of the BRAIN initiative.
Speaking to the New York Times, Donald Stein, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, commented, “The underlying assumptions about ℠mapping the entire brain´ are very controversial.”
The idea that we are attempting to develop technologies before we even know how or why we might use them is troubling to Stein and others.
“I think monies could be better spent by first figuring out what needs to be measured and then figuring out the most appropriate means to measure them,” he continued. “In my mind, the technology ought to follow the concepts rather than the other way around.”
As part of the initiative, the president will require a study of the ethical implications of these sorts of advances in neuroscience.
The administration will tap the budgets of the NIH, DARPA and the National Science Foundation for the funding resources required to begin research. Partnerships with universities and the private sector will round out the necessary fiduciary requirements of the BRAIN initiative, set to get underway in October of this year. October marks the beginning of fiscal year 2014.
The President put the need for this initiative in perspective yesterday, saying, “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, study particles smaller than an atom but we still haven´t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.” With the brain being the true and ultimate final frontier, US leadership on its exploration and explanation will be one more example of “American Exceptionalism” in the field of scientific research.