Back in 1990, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) embarked on an ambitious plan to map the human genome (HGP). The project had a number of technical questions it hoped to solve, but the basic premise was to glean greater insight into human DNA. While the federal government was the key driver in the project, it was very much a public-private partnership in that a considerable amount of the research was conducted in university labs, and at least one private institution helped to fund it. The project wrapped up in 2003, and by almost any standard should be considered a success.
This week, President Obama unveiled the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The project’s primary focus will center on memory loss, and how humans learn and process information. Much like the HGP before it, the BRAIN initiative will be a public-private partnership, relying on federal laboratories and private sector support and guidance to help jump start this still nascent field. Within the federal government, NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), along with funding support from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies will all undertake the most comprehensive study of the human brain to date.
The White House should be applauded for such a bold idea. Federally-funded basic research has long been a key player in the American story, and is credited with helping to develop things like the Internet and global positioning systems. The BRAIN initiative may very well be the investment needed to solve some of society’s most vexing dilemmas. Because of the government’s foresight in 1990, doctors today are better able to predict what diseases patients are most susceptible to. Who’s to say the modern-day equivalent won’t lead to solving the Alzheimer’s puzzle?
Of course this is contingent upon members of Congress agreeing to fund the plan –which is included in the president’s budget for fiscal year 2014. Thanks to the president’s and Congress’ seemingly endless budgetary impasse, science funding has been slashed at a time when the government should be doubling down on the investment. It’s important to remember that two decades ago the HGP created an economic boon, generating nearly $800 billion in economic output.
So, in the coming days and weeks when critics question the wisdom of the BRAIN initiative, President Obama would be wise to remind the country that basic research isn’t a cost, it’s an investment in economic growth and public health.