Obama’s BRAIN Initiative: Brilliant Policy or Brute Waste?

by Tony Traina on July 15, 2013

in Features, Nano & Biotech

In April, President Obama  announced a new BRAIN Initiative. Its stated goal is to “give scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain.” After a multitude of recent failed trials for Alzheimer’s drugs, it’s become increasingly apparent there is a need for a more basic understanding of the way the brain operates. As big pharma continues to funnel money into later-stage trials in hopes of blindly stumbling upon a potential blockbuster drug, the BRAIN Initiative aims to give researchers a better working understanding of the brain so development money can be more efficiently directed to potential cures.

As federal funding for basic research continues to dry up, patent grants and overall funding for the most basic of scientific research continues to reach record highs.

As federal funding for basic research continues to dry up, patent grants and overall funding for the most basic of scientific research continues to reach record highs.

Even the BRAIN Initiative is only partially funded by the government though. President Obama pledged $100 million in seed money, and a group of non-profit institutions like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have already promised to more than match that.

Research has suggested that HHMI scientists have produced high-impact work at a much higher rate than NIH-funded scientists. Science is not just about maintaining a status quo; it takes agility and audacity to adapt to the current landscape. HHMI is known for tolerating failure, giving its researchers more freedom, and rewarding long-term success. Meanwhile, NIH grants are subject to reviews on a much more regular basis.

While this suggests an initiative as bold as Obama’s BRAIN child may be better off as a privately funded venture, if government is going to take on such a heady project, it should take a lesson from HHMI’s model. Government can more efficiently allocate funds by giving scientists free reign in where the money is actually directed. Instead of Washington bureaucrats directing money towards some predetermined (and often political) goal, it should be a scientist making decisions, for the good of discovery.

Biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry are among the most rapidly evolving sectors today. After a profound dip in biotechnology IPOs — there were but four in 2008-09 — this year has already seen 16. Scientists, close to the lab, or venture capitalists, veterans of the market, are best at adapting to this changing landscape, not Washington, D.C.

Often, the best the government can do is play a role in facilitating the development of new scientific arenas, pledging their vast resources or knowledge base to encourage other organizations to join. Yes, they can provide funding for basic research. But, overall funding for these endeavors continues to rise, even in the increased absence of government expenditure. Government is better off providing tax credits for private companies that embark on this kind of research and enabling increased collaboration among researchers.

Take the recently announced “global alliance” to develop a set of standards to enable the sharing of vast amounts of genetic data. The alliance, among over 70 institutions, arose organically, out of a desire to share data for the good of all involved: patients, companies, and researchers. The best the NIH could do was pledge its support for the consortium, promising its vast resources and knowledge base to encourage other organizations to join. Leave science to the scientists, not the bureaucrats.

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