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Is $100 Million Per Year Too Little For The Brain Map Initiative? 190

Posted by samzenpus
from the bigger-allowance dept.
waderoush writes "At a time of sequesters and shrinking R&D spending, critics are attacking President Obama's proposed Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which would have a $100 million budget starting in 2014. But in fact, the project 'runs the risk of becoming a casualty of small-bore thinking in science business, and politics,' argues Xconomy national life sciences editor Luke Timmerman. The goal of the BRAIN initiative is to develop technologies for exploring the trillions of synapses between neurons in the human brain. If the $3 billion Human Genome Project and its even more productive sequel, the $300-million-per-year Advanced Sequencing Technologies program, are any guide, the initiative could lead to huge advances in our understanding of Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, and consciousness itself. Only government can afford to think this big, argues Timmerman. 'Even though $100 million a year is small change by federal government standards,' Timmerman writes, 'it is enough to create a small market that gives for-profit companies assurance that if they build such tools, someone will buy them. We ought to be talking about how we can free up more money to achieve our neuroscience goals faster, rather than talking about whether we can afford this puny appropriation at all.'"
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Is $100 Million Per Year Too Little For The Brain Map Initiative?

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  • ... more money to achieve our neuroscience goals faster

    Apparently they've already achieved augmenting the mind to psychic powers, because there's no other way he knows what my (as, yes, a member of the set of "our") neuroscience goals are.

    Since, however, I am not a consulting neuroscientist nor a corporation poised to monetize discoveries in this field, my goals, at least in the "money" terms, probably vary.
    • by hedwards (940851)

      What are you on about?

      The focus of this research is on the technology necessary to map and study the brain. So, it accelerates pretty much any brain related research. So, as long as you plan not to get dementia or alzheimers you may well be right, but there's a ton of research left to be done on all sorts of things that's held up by the limited technology for studying brains of living subjects.

  • by ohnocitizen (1951674) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:01PM (#43393501)
    Research like this is needed, and could yield benefits in medicine, business, and simply human curiosity about our nature. We *could* just cut programs until we stagnate, or we could invest in science and try to grow. I vote for the latter.
    • by femtobyte (710429) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:32PM (#43393779)

      The big question isn't so much whether brain research is good and needed (I think it is), but whether handing out wads of cash to private profiteers is actually the most effective way to do research. There are plenty of highly qualified, smart, and innovative academic researchers who would be glad to get grants without tacking on a fat profit bonus for investors. Private business is great at self-promotion and sucking up cash from public coffers into private pockets, but it's doubtful whether those massive added inefficiencies are balanced by equal or greater gains in quality of results over publicly-funded non-profit research.

    • by phantomfive (622387) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:35PM (#43393803) Journal
      It could go either way. Investment in fundamental research is a great idea for government, one that has returned some of the best dividends over time.

      On the other hand, you can't just throw money at anyone who talks pretty about brains. That opens the door for scammers and frauds to come in and steal a lot of money.

      The guys in the article don't really seem to have a clear plan, they just want investments in things like nano-diamonds. Also their idea is to take the money away from cancer research, which is weird. I'd like to see ideas that are at least a little more concrete than that before supporting a billion dollar commitment on the topic.
    • Research is good no doubt. The problem is, as always, that there are limited resources, and sometimes using those resources responsibly means saying "no" to an expenditure that you may really really want to make.

      For instance (to use an extreme example), if we were talking "Zimbabwe", and you were to say "they should definately invest in space research", I might respond that, while true, their limited resources should be spent on their many more pressing issues.

      We're not Zimbabwe, but we do need to watch ho

    • by jd (1658)

      Agreed on all points, though I'd have to agree with femtobyte as well that profiteers make horrible scientists. $100 million is peanuts, as the original article notes, but that is only a bad thing if it operates in complete isolation. If it cooperates with the Connectome Project and other neurological studies, this study could be quite useful. But that is only true if the division of labour is correct. You cannot break a scientific project into N sub-projects at random, even $100 million ones. If everyone g

    • by fche (36607)

      Not all research is worthwhile. When you're going bankrupt, the threshold / burden of proof ought to be pretty darned high to ensconce new spending.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:05PM (#43393527) Homepage

    Throwing money at a problem only works if you known roughly what you want to do. The Manhattan Project had a well defined goal - 1) separate uranium isotopes or make plutonium, and 2) figure out some way to assemble them fast enough to get a fast chain reaction. They knew up front roughly what was needed. The Apollo program was a step up from the previous rocket programs, but it wasn't the first big rocket.

    On the other hand, throwing money at controlled fusion has not been very successful. We don't know how to make that work. Throwing money at artificial intelligence didn't accomplish much until recent years. Interestingly, mobile robotics is now far enough along that throwing money at it works. NASA blew about $80 million on the Flight Telerobotic Servicer in the 1980s and got zip. DARPA has spent over $100 million with Boston Dynamics on BigDog, LS3, PETMAN, and ATLAS, and they're getting results.

    The trouble with the BRAIN program is that they're talking about developing bigger computers to emulate a brain, but don't really know what problem they have to solve. This could turn into another supercomputer boondoggle. The comment I've made previously (once to Rod Brooks) about emulating a human brain is that you should try to emulate a mouse brain (1/1000th the mass) first. All the mammal brains have roughly the same architecture. Until you can emulate a mouse brain, you're not ready to try for a human brain. Brooks replied that "he didn't want to go down in history as the person who created the world's best robot mouse." So he tried Cog, which was an embarrassing flop, and hasn't been heard of much since.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ColdWetDog (752185)

      Oh we know what we want to do. More basic research.

      This, OTOH is just a typical presidential PR stunt [npr.org]. A 'dream team' approach. Well, that doesn't even work so well in sports and science isn't a basketball game.

      It's just a way to 1) make noise 2) make some more noise and 3) toss some money to some politically connected friends.

      Nothing to see here, move along.

      • It's just a way to 1) make noise 2) make some more noise and 3) toss some money to some politically connected friends.
        Nothing to see here, move along.

        Sounds like the IRAQ war Bush friends got us into. Unfortunately, it took us over 10 years to "move along"...

        Personally, I'd rather spend *only* 100 million on brain research.

      • by the gnat (153162)

        toss some money to some politically connected friends

        Which friends would those be? People like George Church are not exactly politically connected, not in any way that matters. If a politician wants to hand out spoils to guarantee future party loyalty, giving money a relatively tiny clique of academic scientists is one of the least effective methods I can imagine.

    • by Synerg1y (2169962) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:17PM (#43393653)

      the initiative could lead to huge advances in our understanding of Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, and consciousness itself

      The goal is right in the summary, you wouldn't even have to RTFA...

      Ever meet anybody with the former 2 conditions? $2/year an American is less than I'm about to go spend on lunch, saying its not worth it implies a general misunderstanding of the scope of the US economy and a disregard for fellow human beings suffering from these conditions.

      I also feel I've met way too many people with the third condition, some of it is pretty atrocious.

      • I personally suffer from human consciousness, and I'll tell ya, it ain't easy. For most sufferers, fits of consciousness often last 16 hours or more and cause serious feelings of confusion and frustration. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I don't even know the nature of my own being. There are several disease modifying medications available to sufferers of consciousness, but they are highly restricted and come with a whole host of side effects.
      • the initiative could lead to huge advances in our understanding of Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, and consciousness itself

        Ever meet anybody with the former 2 conditions?

        Even more useful, spend that money simply studying the last item (consciousness) on members of the House and Senate. I'm sure we'd find *something* - eventually...

      • by oldhack (1037484)
        The goals you quoted might as well read "the good stuff". If you can't even propose what you specifically want to try, you can spend your own god damn money.
        • by Synerg1y (2169962)

          We're on a topic where understanding the why leads to the how though. Understanding the how has proven impossible up to this point.

          I think a lot of the responses here are the government's fault though for botching an infinite number of these studies where nothing actually got studied and the money was just recycled among a few staff until it was gone. But, still I think it's a worthy goal, and I support it, though I'd just like to see more checks and balances.

      • There are countless conditions that cause human suffering. To decide to fund one group or another necessarily means that funding can not be used to help a different group. Saying that people who don;t support this don't care about suffering is retarded. It is *as* retarded as saying you don't care about suffering because you'd don't want to spend those $2/year on a campaign to stop "texting while driving" which also saves lives.

        You might say ok fine, lets spend $4/year then. The problem is that you coul

        • by Synerg1y (2169962)

          so how do you decide then? do you not think this is an important project then?

          I've also never seen anybody in science take the pre-emptive on I'm going to solve this or cure this... it's always trial and error, so making promises beforehand would be stupid imho.

          You guys hear government and money and immediately protest, but guess what, that federal tax is coming out of your paycheck either way, so might as well put it towards something that CAN be useful.

          • Yes I do think it is very important. I think it would probably even be beneficial to spend more than $2/person/year.

            I just disagree that being in opposition to spending the money means that people don't care about suffering. They may simply care more about suffering in different areas, or simply want to decide for themselves which causes are worthy (e.g. charity).

            Also, government programs have a reputation for wasting money. Something might be a very good cause, but that doesn't mean the government will

            • by Synerg1y (2169962)

              I just disagree that being in opposition to spending the money means that people don't care about suffering. They may simply care more about suffering in different areas, or simply want to decide for themselves which causes are worthy (e.g. charity).

              Again, how do you decide?

              I agree the government does waste money, but while $9m of this project may get wasted, at $100m a year it seems like it's going to make progress short of complete fraud.

              Also, a lot of scientists, depend on grants like this to feed their families and produce future scientists (yes i'm partially joking), so you know, we don't go back to the dark ages.

              Funny you should mention debt because it sounds like you've been listening to the republicans: read & behold... we owe most of the d

              • You decide the way we decide anything subjective in a democracy... with democracy.

                If most people have friends and relatives that have suffered from brain related illnesses, then it becomes very important. If most people don't know anyone with mental illness, then it becomes less important. Maybe everyone knows someone with Alzheimers, but they are just much more scared of other things like cancer and heart disease.

                If people don't like the laws that get passed (i.e. the way the money is spent), then they e

            • by Dahamma (304068)

              Every $1 we spend now is $10 we need to repay later.

              Actually, it's more like "every $1 we spend now is $10 we DON'T need to spend later" where proactive health care expenses are concerned.

        • by Dahamma (304068)

          How about just prioritizing it by potential cost SAVINGS, then?

          Dementia treatment and care, etc costs over $200B a year to the US, and that's largely paid for by Medicare/Medicaid. It's estimated to be a near unimaginable $1.2 TRILLION PER YEAR by 2050 - it will be far and away the single biggest medical expense, and will make Medicare and other government health-related expenses dwarf anything else we are spending on.

          I saw an estimate that it costs almost $100K per person per year to pay for 24/7 long ter

          • by TheLink (130905)
            If it's all about the economics then you'd need people to die soon after their productivity starts declining a lot or dropping to zero.

            So you might not actually want to find cures/treatments for some problems ;).

            People will eventually die, but before that they often use up a lot of $$$ in medical expenses. And if anyone asks "but what if people could be healthy and fit forever?" they should go think more about the consequences. It's ugly.
            • by Dahamma (304068)

              Yes, that's exactly the point of why dementia/Alzheimer's IS something you'd want to cure to save money. People can live for decades with it while getting to the point they need constant care and attention. If people were HEALTHY and FIT, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. It's the people who are debilitatingly sick but long lived that will be so expensive to care for.

      • the initiative could lead to huge advances in our understanding of Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, and consciousness itself

        That's not a goal. That's the kind of thing to tell venture capitalists when you want them to give you money. A goal sounds more like this, "We're going to use radiographic injection to observe the brain and collect data." It's a plan that's reachable and achievable.

        Remember, AI funding already got cut once (AI winter) because of making ridiculous overpromises.

      • $2/year an American is less than I'm about to go spend on lunch, saying its not worth it implies a general misunderstanding of the scope of the US economy and a disregard for fellow human beings suffering from these conditions [Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy].

        And if the government does ENOUGH stuff at $2/person/project, pretty soon you can't afford lunch - or a place to live, or a way to get to work, or medical care if you DO get Alzheimer's or epilepsy, ...

        Further, government projects are NOTORIOUSLY less e

        • by the gnat (153162)

          putting researchers to work on questions chosen by non-experts

          That is generally a worrisome prospect, but it's not normally the case in the US. The government outlines broad areas that it wants to see studied (cancer, infectious diseases, etc.), but the specific questions being addressed are chosen by actual experts in the form of NIH grant panels. In this specific case, while the decision to push for funding for this initiative came from Obama (which definitely gives me pause), the project itself is, aga

    • by Alomex (148003)

      he comment I've made previously (once to Rod Brooks) about emulating a human brain is that you should try to emulate a mouse brain (1/1000th the mass) first.

      To me this is the hallmark of an over-hyped project. Setting overly ambitious goals that are not achievable even in the medium term but designed to attract media attention.

      The MIT media lab was a classical example of this, with press release after press release promising some life changing research or product (OLPC anyone?) well before the problem and solution space were well understood.

    • by phantomfive (622387) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:38PM (#43393833) Journal

      On the other hand, throwing money at controlled fusion has not been very successful. We don't know how to make that work.

      We know what we need to do [slashdot.org], the path forward is fairly clear. We haven't exactly been throwing money at it [imgur.com], that's the problem.

      Other than that, I agree with your post.

    • by ultranova (717540)

      Throwing money at artificial intelligence didn't accomplish much until recent years.

      It accomplished the groundwork that made the recent advances possible.

    • by TheLink (130905)

      Regarding AI and Thinking, I wonder if scientists even know how amoeba and paramecia think.

      Most people just assume they don't think. But what makes them so sure? I mostly see circular logic - e.g. "thinking requires neurons and single celled creatures can't think because they have no neurons".

      It seems to me that they do somewhat complicated stuff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvOz4V699gk [youtube.com]

      A blind and mute paraplegic could still think. Just because something doesn't have the same senses and physical abiliti

  • Main Expenses (Score:4, Insightful)

    by schneidafunk (795759) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:06PM (#43393533)
    I think a better question would be to ask how the money is going to be spent, and the main expenses of the project, before saying x amount of money is too much or too little.
  • "Only government can afford to think this big, argues Timmerman" Then let the government get a job that will earn $120,700,000/yr so they can have $100,000,000 after taxes to spend on such a project.

    • by femtobyte (710429)

      The government has been doing quite a lot of jobs; like providing roads, communications systems, schools, universities, legal systems, parks, environmental quality oversight, labor protections, military support, innovative fundamental research, etc. Now, I don't think they're always doing the best possible job (and in some areas, like murderous foreign wars and torture camps, they're downright terrible). If you don't like the job our government does, you're free to pack up and head over to the competition -

  • Some years ago I remember reading reports from the research projects which seek to create scanning and interpretation tools which those who are paralyzed, seemingly catatonic (or "vegetables"), and others with severe restrictions in mobility and ability to communicate, can use to communicate with the outside world by manipulating existing computer interfaces and tools. This kind of work was growing magnitudinally and then one day (in any given project) they hit a wall while those used to test the work (who
  • Way too little. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Monday April 08, 2013 @02:38PM (#43393827) Journal

    The US defense budget is 700,000 million. If we reduced the defense budget by .1% (iow, by a factor of .001), we could get another 700 million for this project. If you're concerned about the national security consequences, don't be. We could reduce the defense budget by 50% and still outspend China by more than 2:1.

    • by msauve (701917)
      "The US defense budget is 700,000 million. If we reduced the defense budget by .1% (iow, by a factor of .001), we could get another 700 million for this project."

      Or, we could simply reduce the deficit by that amount, instead of continuing to spend money we don't have.
      • by Hatta (162192)

        Or, we could simply reduce the deficit by that amount, instead of continuing to spend money we don't have.

        Yes, because we all saw how well austerity worked in Greece, Ireland, Cypress, etc. Everywhere austerity has been tried it's failed. You have to spend your way out of recessions. If money isn't moving on its own, we have to force it to move. Austerity simply doesn't work [washingtonpost.com].

        • Your examples are all countries which do not control their currency. They all use the Euro. The problems they are having are exactly the problems that were predicted when they joined the euro. Their problems have nothing to do with austerity, rather their problems are because their monetary policy is controlled by someone outside of those countries (this does not mean that they wouldn't have problems if they still controlled their monetary policy, just that the lesson you are learning is not the correct one
        • by msauve (701917)
          Spoken like a true Keynesian. Spending only "works" to get out of a recession because it creates inflation. And it doesn't even do that well [forbes.com].
        • by khallow (566160)

          Yes, because we all saw how well austerity worked in Greece, Ireland, Cypress, etc.

          Don't blame the cure for the disease.

          For example, if you get a severe heart attack away from prompt medical care, the usual first aid treatment, cardiopulmonary resuscitation [wikipedia.org] or CPR is brutal. If done correctly, it can break your ribs and there's a good chance you'll die anyway (Wikpedia claims long term survival rates under 10%!). But if done correctly, it can beat doing nothing, most of the time.

          The conditions that lead up to the need for austerity are a lot like a predictable heart attack. There mi

          • by Hatta (162192)

            People have ignored that this is an emergency treatment for a country in a situation where the government has lost most of its credibility, and spending and debt are so far out of control that the government lost the ability at least for a time to borrow and spend money

            So the real problem isn't the financial deficit, it's the trust deficit. Hold the politicians who committed the fraud accountable, as well as the bankers who helped. That, combined with a huge push for financial transparency should be all t

    • Ok. Then reduce the defense budget first, because thats how responsible budgeting works: you start by reducing expenditure, and THEN you talk about using that money elsewhere.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        I'd love to, but the fiscal conservatives won't let us.

        • How do you know, the federal government has never actually talked about reducing spending. The closest they have ever come was to talk about reducing how fast they increased spending.
          • by Hatta (162192)

            How do you know, the federal government has never actually talked about reducing spending.

            That's exactly how I know. It's not like you haven't had your chance on many different occasions since Reagan.

            • Good grief every time somebody tries to start reigning in government spending, people start talking about "draconian cuts" even though the people are only talking about slowing down the increase in spending. What do you think would happen to a politician that talked about actually cutting spending?
              When people start screaming about "spending cuts", have you made any effort to point out that those "cuts" are merely reductions in the increase in spending? Or do you just complain that no one follows through on
              • by Hatta (162192)

                Considering the fact that you think the problems in Europe that were caused by monetary policy are the result of austerity, I'm going to guess that you were one of those screaming about the "spending cuts".

                Not at all. Balanced budgets are great. But the time to balance the budget is when the economy is healthy. Borrow during lean times, pay it back in times of plenty. It's not that complicated.

                • by khallow (566160)

                  Not at all. Balanced budgets are great. But the time to balance the budget is when the economy is healthy. Borrow during lean times, pay it back in times of plenty. It's not that complicated.

                  And for the most part, it's not done. Countries like Greece are suffering from austerity precisely because they didn't follow the plan.

            • It is generally a political no-win to "cut" things because people on both sides will demonize the attempt.

              It doesnt change the fact that if your debt is growing, the responsible thing is not to add new spending until you have cut more than that from your existing budget.

              Of course, the responsible thing is also to have a budget to begin with, but I suppose baby steps...

        • A) Im a fiscal conservative, so perhaps be careful with those broad statements-- theyre not true.

          B) If the majority cannot agree to lower spending on defense, then it doesnt happen. But fiscally it is a TERRIBLE idea to say "well, we werent able to lower costs, but we're going to spend on this other thing anyways".

    • We could reduce the defense budget by 50% and still outspend China by more than 2:1.

      And how many soldiers would be in that army? If you can't answer that question, you haven't thought it through very well.

  • It wouldn't surprise me if the areas they will emphasize for study are mind reading, pain infliction (combined with shock supression), memory insertion, and remote control just for the hell of it.

    Keep in mind this admin is perfectly comfortable with droning, Gitmo, permanent war...
  • Manhattan or Apollo projects were successful primarily because they had such a clear focus.

    Sequencing the human genome was just a way to push development of techniques: we didn't learn that much from the primary product. especially since it's become clear that expression is far more interesting/relevant than just a straight read of sequences. and even that is arguably incomplete without better proteomics.

    neuroscience is not at any clearly defined threshold where we can see what's needed to get to a state

  • This and all other research should be privately funded. This, just like the treadmill for shrimp, is a waste of my and many other people's tax dollars.

    http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/federalbudgetprocess/a/How-Much-Shrimp-Treadmill-Study-Cost-Taxpayers.htm [about.com]
  • Spending public money on brain research (and other basic research) is a really good thing. However, spending money in this way, by taking a huge chunk of money and dedicating it in some limited way, is not a good way of doing it. This money will likely mostly go to just a few big institutions and a lot of it will be wasted. In fact, people haven't even formulated a clear plan on what to do with the money. Money like this should be spent as a large number of small grants, awarded through many different grant

  • Look, we figure out the brain and we figure out how to build one in silica, thereby making it expandable and controllable. At that point, the whole domain of useful, answerable questions is open to us. *This* is the one best thing we could throw R&D money at. I would say, "throw more if it helps" but I don't know that it would.

    Anyway, if we don't, the Chinese and Indians will. The country that owns this, owns the world.

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