Quick Note on the New Brain Science Initiative

Having beaten the drum for biogerontological research ever since 2006, when I read a really convincing essay titled “In Pursuit of the Longevity Dividend,” and having defended Newt Gingrich’s enthusiasm for calling for more investment in brain science, I tentatively endorse the Obama administration’s call for investing $3 billion to map the human brain’s activity — though of course I’d prefer that this sum be shifted from some other line item. Gary Marcus of NYU offers thoughts on how we might proceed. This part seems fairly sound:

Rather than putting a huge amount of money into a single project, as the Europeans have, and as the Obama Administration apparently intends, we should endow five separate projects, at a billion dollars each, addressing five of the most fundamental unsolved questions in neuroscience. One project, for example, should focus on deciphering the basic language of the brain. What is the basic element of neural computation? What is the basic scheme by which symbolic information (like sentences) are stored? A second should focus on understanding the rules governing how neurons organize into circuits; a third on neural plasticity and neural development, and understanding how the brain communicates information from one region to another, and determines which circuits to use in a given situation; a fourth on the relation between brain circuits, genes, and behavior; a fifth on developing new techniques for analyzing and observing brain function.

But this part is scaremongering:

We absolutely can’t afford not to invest big in neuroscience. If Obama’s upcoming request is denied by Congress, many of the world’s leading neuroscientists will be tempted to leave the U.S. for better funding in Europe (as one eminent neuroscientist did recently, after twenty years at Caltech); whether it meets its grand goal or not, the European project will certainly lead to a significant number of smaller scientific advances. If the U.S. doesn’t follow suit, we will lose our lead in neuroscience, and will likely be left playing catch-up in some of the biggest game-changing industries on the horizon, like human-level artificial intelligence and direct brain-computer interfaces (even though both fields originated in the United States).

Alas, appealing to fear and loss-aversion is generally more effective than, for example, talking up the possibility that investing in basic research might greatly extend disease-free lifespan, thus extending productive working lives and reduces the costs associated with Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases. My guess is that Marcus has taken this lesson to heart. 

UPDATE: It turns out that Marcus, or rather Professor Marcus, is a good sport who understandably raised an eyebrow at my accusation of scaremongering, so I’ll elaborate. I am a devotee of Amar Bhide’s critique of techno-nationalism, which he summarizes as follows:

The “techno-fetishism and techno-nationalism” described by Ostry and Nelson in 1995 has apparently drawn strength over the last decade from concerns in the West about globalization.  The mindset incorporates two related tendencies.  One is the focus on the upstream development of new products and technologies while glossing over their downstream consumption and use.  The other is the belief that national prosperity requires upstream international leadership in upstream activities – “our” scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and firms have to be better than everyone else’s – they must write more papers, file more patents and successfully launch more products.  Otherwise, competition from low-wage countries like China and India will erode living standards in the West especially as they upgrade their economies to engage in more innovative activities. 

In this paper I claim that the two tendencies misapprehend the nature and role of innovation as well as the implications of globalization.  I argue that the willingness and ability of individuals and firms to acquire and use new products and technologies is as important as – and in small countries more important than – the development of such products and technologies.  Moreover nations – unlike many individuals and organizations – don’t have to outperform ‘competitors’ in order to prosper. Notwithstanding the rhetoric about the competitive advantages of nations – a transplant from the domain of inter-firm rivalry that has displaced references to old-fashioned comparative advantages – countries are not locked into zero-sum trade.  An innovation originating in one country does not impoverish other countries.  Rather it tends to improve standards of living in all countries that have the downstream capacity to acquire and implement the innovation. 

The rejoinder is that it can be useful to a given country or city to have upstream innovative functions in your jurisdiction, for a variety of tangible and less-tangible reasons. Assuming this is roughly right, a different question arises: what is the most cost-effective way to capture these benefits? I would argue that reforming land use regulations in high-amenity, high-productivity regions would do at least as much to attract and retain researchers in various domains as direct funding, as it would reduce the cost of living. Moreover, reforming land use regulations would tend to increase the size of a given city’s population, strengthen the revenue base, etc., i.e., it would have substantial benefits above and beyond attracting or retaining a small number of researchers engaged in cutting-edge upstream innovation. My thesis is that while some researchers will go to where the funding is most generous, a nontrivial number are motivated by quality of life as well. If it is much “cheaper” to compete on quality of life grounds than on spending billions per upstream researcher, why not give it a try? This is a particularly attractive option if you are the steward of an incumbent in the upstream innovation game, i.e., a region that already has an extensive upstream innovation ecosystem that would be very difficult to recreate in a short amount of time, even with a huge injection of resources. This is not to say we shouldn’t spend money on research — we should. But the fact that Researcher X or Y has moved to Singapore or Seoul shouldn’t alarm us too much. Rather, we should make decisions regarding research on the merits, not out of the fear that some other country will cook up some scientific breakthrough — because that would be actually be a very good thing, and U.S. researchers and firms and citizens would benefit, regardless of where the upstream innovation happened. This was less true of, say, Soviet breakthroughs in the manufacture of hydrogen bombs. Fortunately, Korean breakthroughs in mapping the brain are non-rivalrous.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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