Washington’s Contradictory Science Spending

If you reach for the sky, first try not to let it fall. Over the next 10 years, President Obama announced during his State of the Union address, the United States will spend $3 billion on the Brain Activity Map Project, a grand, new, inspiring research initiative to map in detail every neuron of the human brain. Earlier this semester, Riley K. Carney ’15 praised the decision in a euphoric op-ed, concluding that “investment in exploration, scientific understanding, and progress is exactly the kind of legacy our government should seek to leave behind.”

Since that announcement, a recent development has decidedly darkened its predecessor. Over the next 10 years, the United States will not only spend $3 billion mapping the brain, but it will also aimlessly ax $1.2 trillion of spending elsewhere—$85 billion by October. Much of the slashed spending will come from what once funded basic research. The federal government is the largest provider of research grants in the country by a remarkably large margin; Harvard has received over $650 million for research this last fiscal year.

All three of Harvard’s largest funding providers, The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense, among others, will see significant cuts. In the Washington Post, former NIH director Elias Zerhouni explained that because the average research grant ends only after five years, “because science is like that,” only 20 percent of grant funding opens up annually. Of that, half plows back into projects seeing successful results, leaving only 10 percent to fund new projects and an even smaller portion for new projects from new, younger scientists, the students Harvard is tasked to train. “We are going to maim our innovation capabilities,” Zerhouni stated. “It will impact science for generations to come.”

Carney’s op-ed began by optimistically contrasting the Brain Activity Map Project against recent recurring headlines of “debt crises” and “congressional gridlock,” and a “government [that] appears broken, dysfunctional, and without any long-term vision”. Congressional gridlock: check. A body politic bifurcated, boozy, and myopic: with pained reluctance, check. We pulled out a celebration bottle too early. Keep drinking, but for different reasons.

The rhetoric surrounding Obama’s Brain Activity Map project wishfully compares it to past scientific successes—John F. Kennedy’s historic 1961 proclamation that we would put a man on the moon and the Human Genome Project, which cost $3.8 billion over 13 years and, according to a federal government study, generated $796 billion returns and 310,000 jobs.

However, a brain is not a genome. The Brain Activity Map Project will not be the Human Genome Project. HGP knew G, A, T, and C, the base nucleotides that make DNA, and tried to find out how many and in what ways they combine in humans’ full hereditary codes. It knew what it was after and had a clear sense of how that could be achieved.

More importantly, the genome had 20,000-25,000 genes to map. An average brain has, in its lowest estimates, over 85 billion neurons. However, BAM does not refer to an old NIH project that intended to map a static brain. The Brain Activity Map wants to do exactly what it sounds like: map brain activity, the trillions of connections between those many billions of neurons over time. To do this, some propose we will need to advance the field of nanotechnology to create “fleets of molecule-size machines to noninvasively act as sensors to measure and store brain activity at the cellular level.”

Even once we can collect all this data, numerous petabytes, each a quadrillion one-or-zero bits, on giant hard drives, there remains the question of how to interpret them. Quadrillions of pieces of information cannot be simply handed to teams of scientists to wade through. The data will require intelligent, multi-faceted tools and methods of analysis that relate the activity map to the real world, its developmental, social, clinical, and other implications and applications.

For all its difficulty, a more complex goal, less money, and an earlier completion date, BAM may yet equal or surpass HGP’s success. It may promise giant leaps for mankind, as JFK once promised, and reward high returns in both social and economic dimensions, as one of Harvard’s own, Harvard Medical School Professor George M. Church, who will lead the project, has argued strongly and valiantly.

Describing the loftiness of BAM’s ambitions is important because BAM represents Washington’s ideals. BAM is scientific research that for all its cost and uncertainty our politicians applaud. Sequestration, on the other hand, is Washington’s antithetical reality. Scientific research nationwide will be slashed in a self-mutilation that was never supposed to happen and with a more competent Congress, never would have.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke, “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.” It certainly is not. While we cut everything else, let’s cut the contradiction. Before we can understand the brain, our government must use it.

Jesse A. Shulman ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall.