Thursday, November 7, 2013

Obama’s BRAIN: Making It Up as They Go Along

Today’s issue of Nature has an article by Helen Shen recounting the tempestuous and confused story of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. Coming after the administration’s botched launch of, one is left in awe at the hubris of a government managed mega-research project that aims to simultaneously record all of the neural activity in the human brain, and that will involve scientific and budgetary coordination between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

As they say in the White House briefing room, expect a few glitches as things roll out.

Here’s a quick recap for those of you keeping score at home:

The White House, “on the lookout for a bold presidential initiative,” latched onto a blue-sky idea called the Brain Activity Map (BAM) which had been floated a few months earlier. The president mentioned it in his State of the Union speech on February 12, and the administration was soon talking about a ten-year, $3.8 billion plan. Many neuroscientists were “alarmed,” fearing that the money would be pulled from existing research programs, and that failure of such a titanic project might “undermine public trust in science.” One scientific critic called it “a very narrow agenda of a small group of people.”

The White House formally announced its plan on April 2, by which time BAM had been transformed by clever acronym into the BRAIN Initiative. Unlike BAM, Obama’s BRAIN had “no clearly defined goal” and many neuroscientists found it “puzzlingly vague” and yet “reassuring,” because details were to be left to DARPA, NIH, NSF and the four private foundations.

The hashing out of details took place at a meeting in Arlington, Virginia on May 6. Chen described that meeting as “a frenetic pitch-fest,” and a “cacophonous town hall meeting” filled with “restless attendees,” all lobbying for their particular scientific topics and techniques.
To the growing exasperation of audience members, however, there was no convergence towards a coherent agenda for the [BRAIN] initiative.
The boisterous open session was followed by a carefully stage-managed closed meeting at which the specially selected NIH advisory committee (a.k.a. “The Dream Team,” chaired by Rockefeller’s Cornelia Bargmann and Stanford’s William Newsome) heard privately from invited speakers. The Dream Team’s selection of speakers and topics drew fire from scientists who felt excluded.

After the meeting in Alexandria, the government research agencies began playing “after you, Alphonse,” with NSF and DARPA ultimately declining to take the lead in BRAIN planning. So all eyes were on the NIH advisory committee, which on September 16 made public its interim report on the project’s scientific priorities. The result will not surprise anyone who has served on a committee.
Many had feared that it would fail to be sufficiently inclusive, but the document was instead so staggeringly broad that it seemed to encompass all of circuit-based neuroscience.
The NIH advisory committee has now kicked the can down the road to an open comment session at the massive Society for Neuroscience meeting on November 11 in San Diego.

Having squeezed its fifteen minutes of attention out of the president’s SOTU speech, the Obama White House has “so far indicated no intention to coordinate the [inter-agency planning] process more formally.” Whether that is a bug or a feature has yet to be determined.

Chen’s detailed account of the BRAIN Initiative is remarkable—it brims with fear, anxiety, chaos, distraction, mistrust and lack of coordination. Welcome to Big Science in the Age of Obama. When we load every dream and wish onto the agenda of the Federal government, can we be surprised that the behemoth staggers and fails us? Are we shocked to find the Federal money trough swarmed by a selfish, unruly throng, and the spigot controlled by a small coterie of insiders? If you are, you haven’t been paying attention for the past five years.


sherapop said...

Great post and apt metaphor.

I'd say that our government has basically morphed into an acephalic, tentacular bureaucracy by this point.

Oh, I guess that's what you just said! ;-)

Avery Gilbert said...


DARPA, NIH and NSF are all government agencies and to some extent everyone funded by them is sucking at the Federal teat. (Full disclosure: I did it myself back in the day.)

To me, the disturbing thing is what happens when their mission becomes politicized and when cronyism emerges. In the Department of Energy we got Solyndra and other flawed and failed wastes of money. Can that happen to federal neuroscience research? If not, why?