Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Brain Activity Map (BAM): The Pluses and Minuses of Science Policy in the Making.

As recently outlined in SCIENCE and other journals, as well as in the general media, President Obama’s announcement of the BAM has caused quite a stir. While many scientists welcome this large new thrust in neuroscience, others question the technological feasibility of the project. It is interesting that much of the initial energy and organization for this concept came from non-neuroscientists and from private groups such as the Kavli Foundation rather than arising from the NIH’s neuroscience mainstream.

Whether or not the BAM project becomes a major scientific success, it is a notable example of how science policy decisions are made. A relatively small group of scientists and foundation people were able to create a compelling vision and then ‘sell’ it to senior policy makers. This will entrain a significant new investment in neuroscience and in the technology needed to pursue the project’s goals.

In the broadest sense it will be good to see any new investment in basic science. However, is the BAM the very best use of the ~ $100M/year research investment? In terms of overall global good would the money be better spent on malaria research? On better antibiotics for drug resistant bacteria? On early detection of tumors?

The BAM episode highlights the fact that we do not have a systemic approach to assessing the nation’s need for research and development. While such approaches have been suggested (1) they have never really been implemented. For the most part, science policy, especially in the biomedical arena, is driven by pressures from interest groups, primarily patient advocacy organizations. The enormous investment in HIV research is a paramount example of this. While the interests of patients clearly need to be represented, sometimes disease-focused research is not the most rapid path to progress.  That is why the BAM project is so interesting; like its Genome Project predecessor, it is primarily driven by basic research issues rather than having a disease focus.

Thus the BAM project may provide a model for scientists in other areas to energize their fields with new funding. Unfortunately it also exemplifies the lack of a logical, systemic approach to public funding of science.

(1) Guston, D. & Sarewitz, D. (2002). Real-Time Technology Assessment. Technology in Society, 24(1-2), 93-109.

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