Here’s the future.
The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics. The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.
Do you smell what the Rock is cooking, baby?
A new, huge, Federally funded research project running for a decade or more, flowing billions of dollars into Neuro research. Think about the possibilities.
But, first, let’s get the science out of the way. This is top-down funding, not bottom-up demanding. A few wired guys in politics, in government, and in science are trying to make this thing happen for their own benefit.
The hype in this NYTimes article is palpable. Consider the riff on the Human Genome meme. The Neuro thing is just like the Human Genome. And, if you read the rest of the article you discover this amazing economic benefit from that project.
The Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion. It was begun in 1990 and its goal, the mapping of the complete human genome, or all the genes in human DNA, was achieved ahead of schedule, in April 2003. A federal government study of the impact of the project indicated that it returned $800 billion by 2010.
The President even quoted that impact figure in the State of the Union address. For every dollar the Fed spent on the Genome Project it generated a $140 of economic activity. At least that’s what the Battelle economists figured. You can tell that no one is thinking when the President can say something like that in public and no one laughs. There is simply no way on God’s good green Earth that 1 tax dollar spent generates 140 more dollars of economic activity . . . unless you use Marxist math (gee whiz, where was this study in 2009 when the recession was really howling? Another Human Genome Project would have had the world in a Bull Market in 2010). And, gee, the fact that Battelle does an enormous amount of business with the Federal government can in no way affect their math.
But, note this odd observation. Here’s George Church.
“If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won’t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck.”
So. We’re already spending Human Genome money on Neuro, but now we’re going to create a special Fed project on Neuro that will deliver more bang for the buck. (Good grief, why didn’t Battelle add a More Bang For The Buck calculation?)
And, of course, there’s the pathos.
Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses.
That’s what they said the Human Genome Project would accomplish (and I was in those rooms when they were saying it then) and at an even more fundamental level than Neuro. Good grief, molecular genetics versus neurons firing? Which do you think causes and controls these brain disorders? But, run the Alzheimer’s Cure persuasion play and you can get another billion bucks.
Heck, I just a persuasion idiot and I’m raising this concerns. Think about the criticisms of really smart guys. There are critics of the idea and the Times trenchantly notes them.
Critics, however, say the simulation will be built on knowledge that is still theoretical, incomplete or inaccurate.
That’s it. That’s all the criticism the Times notes. One sentence with unnamed critics. But, there are critics. Somewhere. The Times just can’t find them right now. For attribution.
The Times could look at that recent issue filled with disappointing reviews of the past 20 years of Neuro research as applied to psychology. The allure of pretty pictures along with unanswered questions like, What Are You Doing? and How Is This Different? and Are You Sure? But, why clutter a persuasion play with questions that only trigger High WATT skepticism?
So, the science of this grand science ain’t so grand. Yeah, baby. Which brings us to the persuasion.
The persuasion possibilities are grand. A few wired guys at elite institutions have been working their connections in the Obama administration to craft this idea. The Fed administrators in the various agency who would manage the idea are obviously on board because the project would give them more money and power. Good grief, what Fed could oppose this? Jeepers, what politician can oppose this? The brain has no political affiliation, right? Everybody’s got a brain and since it appears that no one uses it well, wouldn’t a Neuro Project seem logical? And, we’ve got Alzheimer’s, too!
Please realize that this is not Science in action, but Persuasion in action. This is the art of the deal as brokered in the smoke-filled room, except no one smokes nowadays. They eat prawns. A handful of self-interested guys are trying to wire a ton of inside money to advance their interest, which we noted, is their self. This is how a lot of science operates since World War II and it is the less attractive side of all those good people trying to good things for you and me.
What’s least understood about all this money is where it goes. Most of this money will be out of reach for the great mass of unwashed geniuses shining their brilliance in dark labs. Get this.
They also said that a series of national brain “observatories” should be created as part of the project, like astronomical observatories.
Yeah. Love the astronomical metaphor. Copernicus. Telescope on lonely hills. Night, sleep, death, and the stars. But, open your eyes and follow the money: a few Centers of Excellence. And since that’s where the money is, that’s where the people will go.
And, that’s not science. That’s persuasion. Why will those Centers exist? Not because they are doing the best science in the information marketplace, but because they had a Boolah-Boolah buddy in the Fed who worked the budget. This is how the rich get richer, not how the smart get smarter.
I think this also explains in part why the Human Genome Project did not deliver anywhere near the promise it claimed during the late 1990s during that persuasion play. Sure, the people involved were very smart and accomplished, but they hadn’t done something that drew other smart people to the idea. They drew people with the money.
I had a scientific colleague in the Fed who first introduced me to the mantra: No Bucks, No Buck Rogers. For you younger guys out there, Buck Rogers was a 1940s action hero like Tony Stark, the Iron Man. Great metaphor, though. Except if you think about it. The metaphor is about comic book science.