President Obama was apparently doing more than just posturing in his last state of the union address when he talked up brain science and some sort of a brain mapping mega project that promises to be as ambitious and expensive as the $3 billion Human Genome Project. If there was ever an issue calling out for clear science reporting, this would be it.
What, exactly, would this brain project entail? Why does it have to be so expensive? We got more information last week in a New York Times story by John Markoff, Obama Seeking to Boost Study of the Human Brain.
As Markoff described the project in the second graph, it would be a …."concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness." By the end I was still not clear on what, specifically, these scientists planned to do.
A number of follow-up stories and online posts appeared within a day or so – at The Atlantic Wire, io9, and Alan Boyle’s NBCnews.com blog to name a few. The Atlantic piece used tweets instead of interviews.
Markoff wrote a subsequent piece, Connecting the Neural Dots, for this week’s Science Times. I still feel the issue hasn’t been spelled out clearly enough for general readers. And there are many important angles that are crying out to be further explained. Who are the people who pushed for this project? How did they come to wield so much power? Should we embark on a new “big science” project and if so, will we sacrifice smaller, more independent and creative science?
And if Harvard biologists George Church lends his own brain to the research, will he and his colleagues find the glitch that led him to tell a Der Spiegel reporter about his vision for cloning Neanderthal babies?
This may sound irrelevant, but Church is one of the ringleaders of this project. Do his eyebrow-raising comments about Neanderthal cloning say something about his wisdom or judgment? Aren’t those qualities important in those who wield enormous power over the direction of science?
The European Union also announced an expensive brain mapping project this year. How did that decision influence Obama’s embrace of a U.S. brain mapping effort? Do we need another such project if the Europeans are already embarking on something similar?
Some scientists have already drawn battle lines – or at least Tweeted them. Others are waiting to learn more about the nature of this project and whether all the riches will go to a few labs or get distributed to smaller groups as well. Our job as science writers will be to clarity what this project entails, what the scientists will actually do, and what we may or may not learn from it and the political forces behind it all. And, most importantly, some of us need to explain it so that ordinary citizens can understand.