Yesterday, President Obama announced his plan to spend $100 million in the next fiscal year to begin mapping the human brain. “As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom,” Mr. Obama said. “But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.” Despite budget constraints, this is the kind of effort at which government excels, and the private sector does not. Congress should fund this in full.
For those who believe that the government can’t get anything right, one must point out its successes in basic research. The Internet began as a government project. The computer chip that makes the Internet possible was originally a government project. Putting Messrs. Armstrong, Aldrin and the rest on the moon was a government project. Nuclear energy (and weaponry) came out of government research.
The private sector is incredibly bad at basic research for a reason. There is no immediate profit to be made from it. The private sector , simply put, is not designed to do this kind of research. Knowing for the sake of knowing is not of any value to the market. In the 1960s, for a few million dollars a man could and did invent the cassette tape recorder. MP3 files could have been made as well, but the cost would have been trillions had he even had the vision to see the potential. The cassette was immediate, although technologically inferior, and it proved to be highly profitable.
The Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies [BRAIN] Initiative is badly named, but the government doesn’t do marketing as well as the private sector. And the $100 million is merely seed money to get the project off the ground, Using the Human Genome project as its template, the BRAIN initiative anticipates a partnership between the government and private sector. This is as it should be. The private sector is better at containing costs, and the government is better at coordination of complex projects.
The BRAIN initiative is exceedingly important because of its potential. Ever since life on Earth became conscious (one hesitates to restrict that to humanity), it has focused its attention on understanding the external environment, However as any decent philosopher knows, perceptions of that external reality are not the same as the external reality. By better understanding the organ that processes the perceptions, human beings will be able to better understand the universe in which they live.
The president talked about creating jobs and finding new treatments for neurological maladies, and if the project eventually yields such, it will have been fruitful. Being able to diagnose and treat mental illness, to cure schizophrenia or bipolar disorder would be a great leap forward. But if these are the goals, then the project will be too limited. These must be mere by-products of the research, the purpose of which must be to improve humanity’s understanding of creation. That certainly seems to be worth $100 million.