Giant Brain Mapping Project: Boon or Boondoggle?

A few days ago, the White House announced a gigantic project to map the human brain.  I confess that the first word that sprang unbidden to my mind was: phrenology.  Today, we finally hear that not everyone is thrilled. The kimono parts a little right here:

The fight comes amid intense competition for federal research grants among biomedical researchers, who have seen the National Institutes of Health’s $31 billion budget stay flat in recent years after a period of doubling in the past decade

Are we prepared for what we’ll discover?

I love science, I really do. And I even dig gigantic projects – sometimes. I’ll mourn if the James Webb is canceled. But, as a dabbler in philosophy, I worry that some scientists are confused over the distinction between ‘brain’ and ‘mind’. It remains to be seen how much can be learned about the mind by studying the brain, but the idea that we’ll ever reach the point where we can download the contents of a brain and thereby transfer a mind – well, I have my doubts. If all those Trans-humanist goofballs think that’s where this is going, I hope they’re not holding their collective breath.*

Some seem to share my concerns, although the money (as always) is the biggest issue:

However, other researchers such as Leslie Voshall of Rockefeller University in New York have criticized the ambition and potential cost.”We don’t understand the fly brain yet. How will this come to anything?,” Vosshalll asked in a Twitter reaction Monday to word of the proposed project in The New York Times. If the projected $300 million annual cost (in the neighborhood of the federal Human Genome Project in the late 1990s) is taken from NIH’s flat budget,she estimates, 750 lab chiefs would lose grants in universities across the USA.

Gee, from the language here, one might be lead to imagine Big Science is all about getting government grants – sure hope that doesn’t influence what gets studied and what conclusions are reached. Because that would be bad.

Finally, since at least the Great Depression, during which, for example, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s achievements were touted precisely because they were too ambitious** for private industry or local government to undertake, the government has searched far and wide for giant projects private industry won’t take on. This might lead the less charitable and civic minded to suspect that pork-barrel politics and the deathless drive of bureaucracies to expand are involved in what Science! gets funded. And this here is a big project.

But wait –

“This is not a project yet, it is more like an idea,” says National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke director Story Landis.

A $300M/year idea. Oh well, there are worse things to waste money on.

* Although that thought lead me to imagine a vast sea of trans-humanists who, having emerged from their mom’s basements, gathered, cheeks puffed, eyes bugging as they slowly turn blue and pass out, spiraling  to the turf.  And that made me smile.

** And too economically uncertain – but that was not touted as far as I can remember.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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