Opinion

BRAIN initiative gives a big check to sci-tech elite

In an ominous sign for both sound science and sequester-era fiscal discipline, President Obama announced Tuesday a “$100 million” three-part expenditure on brain research whose three parts actually add up to $110 million.

Cheekily dubbed the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, the new public funding “aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury,” according to the White House’s announcement.

Who could argue against these goals? Nobody who has lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s or confronted the horror of brain injuries could object to finding ways to treat, cure and prevent neurological problems. But it’s not clear how this new expenditure will make any difference, and it is certain that the initiative continues a long, checkered history of publicly funded research.

The president announced that the budget he sends to Congress next week will include serious spending on brain research.

The takeaway (beyond the fact that Obama says the 2014 budget will finally be delivered) is as follows: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will spend $40 million of your money on a Blueprint for Neuroscience Research that “pools resources and expertise from across 15 NIH Institutes and Centers.”  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will spend $50 million for the purpose of “understanding the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrating breakthrough applications based on these insights.”  The National Science Foundation (NSF) will spend $20 million “to support research that spans biology, the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences.”

Obama is keying off a peroration from this year’s State of the Union address, during which he made an unsurprising analogy to the Space Race (Younger readers be advised: We won!), then cautioned against trying to map the human brain on the cheap. “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation,” the president said in January.

To hear Obama tell it, you might not know that major neurological breakthroughs have been made in the last decade, well prior to this federal outlay. Neuroplasticity studies have advanced rapidly in the 21st century, and last year saw major steps forward in brain mapping and cell programmability. The BRAIN initiative would most likely allow Washington to swoop in and take credit for high-level research that’s already going on.

The result could be even worse. California took a high-stakes gamble on public funding for stem cell research nine years ago when voters approved Proposition 71. The resulting $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has turned up little to nothing in the way of stem cell breakthroughs while generating more than its share of mismanagement and political controversy.

In his comments Tuesday, Obama continued the hard-to-substantiate “job-creating” theme from his SOTU address. “Ideas are what power our economy,” he said in announcing the initiative.  “It’s what sets us apart. It’s what America has been all about. We have been a nation of dreamers and risk-takers; people who see what nobody else sees sooner than anybody else sees it. We do innovation better than anybody else — and that makes our economy stronger.”

Considering the highly unpopular results of the administration’s economic stimulus efforts, you might expect the president to soft-pedal such airy claims about centrally planned fiscal boosts. Unfortunately, Obama seems wedded to the myth of spending multipliers that get more outlandish with each retelling. “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy,” he says, highlighting the need for a brain map that could explain how politicians do math.

By Washington standards (though probably not your own), $110 million is not a lot of money. But public money dumps like this are damaging in two ways. First, they take our eye off the actual causes of both economic sluggishness and research obstacles. “Why doesn’t he support reducing taxes and regulations so that private sector companies (existing and startups) can flourish and undertake the type of R&D which is very expensive into brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s?” Pacific Research Institute president Sally Pipes said in an email to The Daily Caller. “I don’t believe that the government will be successful with this initiative.  NIH has a small R&D budget relative to private companies in the drug and biotech industries.  It is also unclear how the funds will be spent.  We should be reducing government spending, not increasing it.”

But there’s a second reason to be wary of publicly funded research, which comes to us from a president who left office just before President Obama was born. Dwight Eisenhower’s fabled farewell address is widely remembered for its warning about the “military-industrial complex,” but Ike devoted an equal part of the speech to warning about another public-private monstrosity in the offing: the “scientific-technological elite” that could exert “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money.”

Eisenhower warned: “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

To see how fully Ike’s vision has come true you need only look at the economics of scientific research today. An era of whopping deficits, richly varied science and increasing attention to brain research is the time to dial back the government’s cranial spelunking, not increase it.

Tim Cavanaugh is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow Tim on Twitter.