Thursday, April 4, 2013

Skimping on brain food -- April 5, 2013 column


President Barack Obama says “the next great American project” will be mapping human brain activity.

The budget he will send Congress Wednesday calls for $110 million for his brain initiative in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

Even Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor support brain research. Former Republican House Speaker Gingrich said Obama “deserved credit for taking an important step in the right direction.”  And House Majority Leader Cantor said in a statement it’s “exactly the type of research we should be funding…it’s great science.”

Before we go all gooey about gridlock thawing in Washington, a new space race or our 21st Century Camelot, let’s take a deep breath. The president proposes, Congress disposes. And $110 million -- bold?

Don’t get me wrong. You’d have to be living in a cave not to support the effort to unlock the mysteries of the brain. We need this research, and we need it now. But it’s hardly a done deal. There’s plenty of time for Republican mischief making. And about that federal effort of $110 million a year – that doesn’t say bold or audacious.  It says modest. Piddling.

I get the rationale for starting small. Maybe it’s the best the president can hope for in the Honey- I-Shrank-Uncle-Sam era. But in modern America, $110 million is small potatoes.

It’s Justin Bieber’s net worth. He’s 19.

It’s the listing price of a penthouse apartment in New York City last year. OK, the apartment was near Carnegie Hall, but still.

It’s even just three-tenths of 1 percent of the National Institutes of Health’s annual budget, according to Francis Collins, the director.  

He said in a live chat via Twitter that NIH is in a “pickle” after budget cuts over 10 years that lopped 20 percent of purchasing power for research. Sequestration is draining $1.5 billion from NIH this year, he said.

So don’t let cold-eyed budget hawks tell you $110 million is a large sum. The Human Genome Project got about $300 million a year from Uncle Sam. Total federal investment was $3.8 billion. The project to map the human genome took 13 years.

Obama likes to tell audiences that every dollar spent on the genome project generated $140 in economic output.  Not bad.

Republican Cantor suggested “reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research” for the brain initiative. It almost sounded as if Cantor was doubling the president’s bid on brain research. Wouldn’t that be fun? More likely, Cantor was trying to show he’s for the brain, conservatively speaking.

Obama envisions his initiative as “giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be – will be – transformative.”

After a decade of war, no politician will, or should, ever say we’re doing all we can to help our wounded warriors with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. No one can tell families struggling to help loved ones that we should wait to look for ways to treat, cure or even prevent Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and strokes.

And yet, such practical applications of the BRAIN project -- Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – are far off. Obama didn’t mention a timeline or even a definite goal.

Three federal agencies will contribute money to the research in the year that begins Oct. 1: National Institutes of Health, $40 million;   Defense Advanced Research Projects, $50 million; and the National Science Foundation, $20 million.

Some say this isn’t the right time begin a new project because of budget woes, but Collins says research has progressed to the point where putting it on hold is wrong.

The federal government will work with four foundations on brain research. The Allen Institute for Brain Science has agreed to spend $60 million annually on projects related to the initiative; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, $30 million annually; the Kavli Foundation, $4 million a year over 10 years; and  Salk Institute for Biological Studies, $28 million.

It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

“I wish we could go faster,” Collins said on the live Twitter chat. “Maybe we’ll be able to ramp it up.”

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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