Tag Archives: advancement
Baelish: Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.
Varys: But what do we have left once we abandon the lie? Chaos, a gaping pit, waiting to swallow us all.
Baelish: Chaos isn’t a pit, chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
President Obama announced a new initiative on Tuesday, to start in 2014 to the tune of $100 million, in order to research and develop new technologies that will help understand the intricacies of the human brain. The scientists involved in the promotion of the idea to the Obama administration call it the Brain Activity Map project, but the actual initiative will officially be known as Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. I have to pause and chuckle at the thought of some White House administrator asking scientists to change the name so that the acronym reads “BRAIN”. Anyway, the initiative has been marked as one of the greatest challenges in the 21st century by the current administration.
Some have compared the initiative to the Human Genome Project in so much that the plan is to account for something that seemed, up until now, insolvable: specifically mapping and showing with certainty brain circuitry in action and accounting for how millions of brain cells interact.
The difference here is that the scientists tasked with the colossal effort to map the human brain won’t really have a finish line in mind when taking up the research. There are no clearly defined marks to which they are expected to reach. It will be within their research where these scientists might come up with their goals, or endgame. Also, while the price tag might seem high to you and I, it’s nowhere near the money given for the Human Genome Project.
Yglesias argues, to which I fully agree, that this is a clear cut example of what government should be doing – funding initiatives that benefit the public good:
A public good, in the economics jargon, is something that’s nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. In other words, if I use some of it, that doesn’t leave less around for you, and once it’s out there, it’s just out there. Scientific knowledge is a great example. When I learn something, it doesn’t mean that you unlearn it. But a big problem with public goods is that they’re valuable because they’re nonrivalrous but underproduced because they’re nonexcludable. So we have a lot of public policy dedicated to making nonexcludable things excludable in practice. That’s what patents and copyrights are for. We also do some to subsidize the production of knowledge. That’s everything from the day-to-day work of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to this big-picture science. Direct financing of knowledge production is a great thing for the government to do, especially because alternatives such as patents and copyrights tend in practice to be counterproductive to the advance of science.
The plan is not without its critics however, and skepticism from the neuroscience community has been especially prevalent. Below are some excerpts from Dylan Matthew’s conversation with Partha Mitra, the Crick-Clay professor of biomathematics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. He is a theoretical physicist by training, he is working on mapping mouse brain circuits.
Dylan Matthews: You were critical of the [Obama Administration’s] initial brain-mapping proposal. What did you make of the details that came out Tuesday?
Partha Mitra: It was a significant improvement compared to the early media reports, where some questions arose about what exactly was being proposed, where the money would come from and so forth. I think what we heard today was a fairly moderate proposal. And it wasn’t so much a proposal; rather it was a proposal to make a proposal.
Matthews: Is that how you’d spend the $100 million, if you were taking charge here?
Mitra: $100 million seems like a lot of money, but the sequestration has taken billions out of the
fiscal year 2013 science budget, so there’s been a huge hit across the board on research funding. So there’s a question as to whether that sequestered science funding is going to be restored or not. One really hopes this will be the case. Otherwise there is going to be a big negative impact on all science research including neuroscience.
DM: What should we want out of a federal neuroscience agenda like this?
PM: If I were to put out one word that’s really critical, it’s integration. Brain research is fragmented, people tend to do their own things. An important reason is the complexity of the subject – one can spend an entire career investigating a particular detail. It may also be due to the competitive funding mechanisms, with people focusing on their own laboratories. With these real life constraints, how do you collaborate and integrate in practice? One way to do it is to understand, “What are the results that appeared in different fields for a particular overall scientific or medical goal?” I think integration is very important, therefore shared scientific goals are important. The tools should ideally follow rather than drive those goals.