April 02, 2013

White House defends brain research initiative’s $100 million price tag

The cost of President Barack Obama's new $100 million BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) announced Tuesday is far outweighed by the benefits gained, the White House argued later in the day.
The initiative—a subject the president first referenced during his State of the Union address in January—would support technologies that map the brain in order to gain greater understanding of a variety of diseases. The hope is this will lead to new cures, prevention and treatment, as well as fuel the economy.
"The potential here is enormous. And the investment here is relatively small compared to the potential," White House press secretary Jay Carney said at Tuesday's press briefing, responding to questions about the program's cost.

The $100 million in government funds being spent on the program will be included in Obama's fiscal year 2014 budget to be released April 10. The funding breakdown includes: $40 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH); $50 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the Department of Defense; and $20 million from the National Science Foundation.
Support will also be provided by private sector foundations.
During his unveiling Tuesday at the White House, the president championed the program's medical benefits, but also promoted the initiative as an economic effort.

"Every dollar we spent to map the human genome has returned $140 to our economy," Obama said.
The president argued that efforts such as the BRAIN Initiative keep America ahead in innovation and help produce new discoveries that might otherwise be made in countries such as "China, India or Germany."
"Ideas are what power our economy," he said. "We do innovations better than anyone else."
Obama asked observers to imagine technology improving the lives of billions of people by reversing the effects of Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder for military veterans.
"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked" within the human brain, Obama said. "And the BRAIN Initiative will change that."
But some suggested Tuesday that the country needs to focus on federal funds already being spent on this subject and took issue with the price.

“Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding, by reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research into expanded medical research, including the expedited mapping of the human brain," Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement. "It's great science."

On the other hand, some critics have suggested that the cost of the program is inadequate when compared with other research programs. But in a phone call with reporters following the president's unveiling, Francis Collins, NIH director, said the amount is "substantial ... considering this is the first year" of the project.
It's a "pretty good start for getting this project off the ground," Collins said.
Support from the program Tuesday came from one politically unlikely source: former House speaker and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is a fiscal conservative but strongly supports science and specifically promoted brain science on the 2012 campaign trail.
Carney said Tuesday the ideas behind the initiative are not political and receive wide support.
"There has historically been and seems to be today bipartisan interest in this kind of innovative research that can pay huge dividends down the road for our country economically [and] medically," Carney said.
But he later joked that "going out on a limb," he of course expects some lawmakers to object to the program.

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