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Science & Technology

Researchers Question Obama's Motives For BRAIN Initiative


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene. Earlier this week, President Obama announced his new BRAIN Initiative. He said he wants $100 million to explore America's next great frontier in science - mapping the human brain, to understand how the brain's neurons and circuits communicate.

But now that brain specialists have had a little time to reflect, some are wondering whether the president's announcement has more to do with politics and some good PR. Here's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: The White House rolled out the president's BRAIN Initiative partly with a video.It features Francis Collins; he runs the National Institutes of Health. It features Francis Collins; he runs the National Institutes of Health.



FRANCIS COLLINS: I'm happy to salute the proposal the president put forward today, the BRAIN Initiative...

ZWERDLING: The way the president described it, the BRAIN Initiative won't just help science and medicine. It'll help...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...to grow our economy to create new jobs, to reignite a rising, thriving middle-class by investing in one of our core strengths, and that's American innovation.

ZWERDLING: The president said this initiative could eventually help scientists cure and even prevent diseases, from Alzheimer's to traumatic brain injury. So you'd think if anybody would be excited, it'd be the world of brain researchers.

When you heard the president's announcement the other day, what was your reaction?

SUSAN FITZPATRICK: My reaction was (pauses) befuddlement. I was befuddled.

ZWERDLING: Susan Fitzpatrick helps run a leading foundation that finances brain research. It's called the James S. McDonnell Foundation.


FITZPATRICK: Right, because I'm not quite sure what the initiative is.

ZWERDLING: Or talk to David Hovda. He runs the brain injury research center at UCLA. He's dubious about the BRAIN Initiative, too.

DAVID HOVDA: This sounds more like - um - a PR splash.

ZWERDLING: Hovda says it's not like scientists have been ignoring the brain. To the contrary, some of the best research centers in the United States have been doing path-breaking research for decades. They've been spending billions of dollars. A consortium of Europeans announced their own, big, brain project last year. So Hovda wonders, how is the president's initiative going to suddenly change the direction?

HOVDA: And I think we're promising too much. I don't think it's going to be the big breakthrough that people think it will be.

ZWERDLING: Brain specialists like Hovda and others said, to be fair, the administration hasn't released many details about the BRAIN Initiative. But they say it sounds to them like something administrations have done forever. You take research projects that are already going on, put them in different wrapping and say, "this is new." A top official at NIH says that's not true.

STORY LANDIS: This is not rehashing. This is not old stuff that we've been doing - none of it. None of it. It will be all new science.

ZWERDLING: Story Landis runs the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes. She says she doesn't know exactly how the initiative would change brain research, either. The government's going to assemble what they call a dream team of advisers, and they'll lay out a plan over the next year; to which skeptics say OK, well, let's suppose, for a moment, that this dream team does propose new research that's not already under way. Is $100 million anywhere near enough to do what the president says he wants to do?

ALEX DROMERICK: Oh, not even close.

ZWERDLING: Alex Dromerick helps run brain research at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, and at a center at Georgetown University.

DROMERICK: This is a very open-ended agenda that is going to go on, I think, for decades.

ZWERDLING: A White House spokesman wrote that it's going to take time to figure out exactly what the BRAIN Initiative will look like because for one thing, the administration has no idea how much new funding Congress will ever approve for it - if any.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.