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delivers “bang for the buck,” from the start, as he told John Markoff of The New York Times in February. One of the ways to do that, Church says, is to not get carried away, and start small with a diverse group of funding agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Since DARPA is putting in $50 million, the NIH is chipping in $40 million, and NSF is joining the group as well, these budgets are small enough that there’s no need to steal money away from any other deserving scientific programs. A group of foundations is said to be chipping in even more.
Where the money comes from is important, but so is how the money is spent. Even though the genome project is going down as a truly historic scientific achievement, the really big “Moore’s Law” style advances in genomics didn’t come until after the government invested in 2004 in new frontiers for the improvement of sequencing instruments, Church says. Until then, many biologists resisted technology improvement because they were uncomfortable with it, he says.
“Only in 2004 did the NIH start its Advanced Sequencing Technology (AST) grant program with $18 million a year (compared to $300M/yr for the Human Genome Project ‘production’ groups),” Church told me by e-mail. “The return on investment of eight years of Advanced Sequencing Technology seems far greater than the 14 years of the Human Genome Project, since the AST played the key role in the million-fold improvement in costs in Next-Gen-Sequencing.” Essentially, the advancements in enabling technologies are bringing us into the age of the $1,000 genome that has gotten scientists and physicians so excited the past couple years.
Given the importance of enabling technologies, and his history in the field, Church says he wants to see the BRAIN project invest in technology from the start, even though it’s likely to make some tradition-minded biologists uncomfortable. Scientists need new optical technologies for monitoring brain circuitry without drilling holes through the skull, as well as calcium imaging systems, and voltage monitors that lean on nanoparticles or ‘nanodiamonds,’ Church and colleagues argued last July in Neuron.
Exactly how these technologies will work is unknown. We don’t know exactly what we’ll learn about the brain by making these investments. But by betting big now, in a field of such untapped potential, we can be sure we’ll learn a lot of things that are relevant for human health. And even though $100 million a year is small change by federal government standards, it is enough to create a small market that gives for-profit companies assurance that if they build such tools, someone will buy them.
This next year will be an important one, as the scientific community will have to articulate the priorities. The group, led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will need to provide more direction and clarity. The project will eventually need more money.
We can certainly afford this kind of work as a country. Some people will howl in protest, but we can easily cut wasteful spending on things like proton therapy for cancer, which will cost us billions in Medicare spending over the coming decades while offering no better treatment outcomes than today’s standard radiation. While really big money gets wasted on items like that, it’s a shame that really big ideas for science are forced to beg for federal table scraps. There’s a real risk, Church says, that the project will get reined in and just focus on the genetics of the brain, because it’s cheaper and within the comfort zone of many biologists today.
No question, the U.S. government wastes a lot of money. We definitely can’t afford to keep running up trillion dollar deficits forever. But sometimes the federal government is the only entity on the planet capable of planting the seeds for far-sighted achievements, like putting a man on the moon, protecting national parks, developing the Internet, sequencing the genome, or building a university system that’s the envy of the world. These things pay massive long-term dividends—whether or not you believe the 140-fold return on genomics investment cited by the President this week.
Clearly, the BRAIN project is one of these low-cost, high-impact investments for the future. 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. Billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen, someone unconstrained by Beltway politics, explained his decision last year to spend $300 million on neuroscience with a sense of wonder you see often in 12-year-old boys.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the workings of the human brain, and awed by its enormous complexity,” Allen said at a press conference in March 2012. “Our brains are many magnitudes more advanced, in the way they work, than any computer software.” He added: “Our dream is to uncover the essence of what makes us human.”
The people of the United States collectively have a lot more money than Paul Allen. Every now and then we can afford to think at least that big. We shouldn’t do it for every far-out idea, but this is the time for brain science.
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