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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Are “Big Brain” Projects Really Worth Billions?

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When does it make sense to throw vast sums of money at a single problem? The question animates a lot of debate in science policy circles, and it was a topic of discussion among scientists and policymakers at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. The question is particularly topical as the United States and Europe each embark on its own vast coordinated project in brain research that will cost tens of billions a year.

An important goal of both programs is to develop tools that will allow researchers to see with greater clarity and resolution what the brain’s 86 billion neurons are doing. Current imaging technologies are much better than nothing, but they are crude—functional magnetic resonance imaging, for instance, measures oxygen, a rough proxy for mental activity. Scientists want more granularity. They want to see individual neurons and the layers of complexity above and below neurons—down, to the genes that drive brain cells, and up, to the circuits and regions and ultimately human behavior that arises from this complexity. One scientist at Davos (like all participants at the event, I agreed not to disclose names and affiliations) insisted that this kind of insight requires a top-down coordination of disparate research. At the moment, many thousands of academic papers are produced each year: the 120,000 academic papers published last year on the brain do not make a coherent whole.

The risk with such Manhattan-scale projects, of course, is that funds get wasted on ventures that may not yield fruit. Critics point out that the people running the big brain initiatives in the U.S. and Europe share a belief that simply harvesting data will yield understanding, when perhaps all it will yield is yet more data. There is also a danger of throwing money at projects that aren’t well thought through simply because charismatic scientists have convinced politicians worried about the vulnerability of an aging population to brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. (See George Whitesides’ critique of the Obama brain initiative here).

Scientists from the European Research Council provided a striking contrast in styles. The Council, in its seventh year, is a pan-European research grant-making organization that hands out relatively small sums to individual researchers based on merit, without their having to be a cog in some grand vision. (To be clear, I have no objection to grand visions—at Scientific American, we devote a lot of ink and pixels to them.) The ERC is not modest in its ambitions, however—it aims to raise the standard of European basic research. What it lacks in grand scientific vision it makes up for in subversiveness.

What the ERC is trying to subvert is the hierarchy of the European academy—the “intellectual snobbery” that Freeman Dyson railed against [see this interview with Steward Brand]. Hierarchies tend to bury youth and enthusiasm and reward the status quo. The idea of the ERC, scientists at Davos told me, is to do an end run around academic hierarchies by dangling a carrot of funding to young researchers—a dynamic that over time may reorder academic priorities.

It won’t surprise many people to hear that the ERC scientists were not big fans of the brain projects.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether big or small science is better in any particular instance. Regardless of what comes from the brain programs, however, it seems a safe bet that over the next decade or so they will be a disappointment—just as there was disappointment with that other big-science initiative, the Human Genome Project. The genome project was, by many accounts, a success, but it failed to live up to the expectations of its patrons (taxpayers) because it did not immediately usher in a new age of personalized medicine, as someone somewhere along the line promised. All they got was a load of scientific nuance (from which they will benefit for many years to come).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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