BAM, BRAIN and DARPA: The Militarization of Brain Science – Part I

Brain Science

I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up to my February 12, 2013 post Mapping the Human Brain for months.  The intention was to put on rose-colored glasses, include a few flashy graphics and get everyone excited about the advances this program could potentially make. But after reading information that came straight from the White House, it just didn’t work out that way.

brain (1)Eight weeks after the BAM project was mentioned in the February, 2013 State of the Union Address, The White House published an infographic containing more information about the project.  It’s a slick presentation, huge, long and somewhat boring, that potentially promises several soft deliverables and possible long-term outcomes.  Get past the pretty graphics however, and there are three key points of interest.

The first thing of note is the name of the initiative has changed – from BAM to BRAIN, an acronym for Brain Research (Through) The Advancement of Innovative Neurotechnologies.  Why the rebranding?  I guess BAM may have been too closely associated with a cooking show or something, and the Fed spinmeisters wanted an acronym more snappy and relevant.  The second item of interest is the budget. At $100 million US dollars, it seems to be on target to kick off an initiative of this magnitude.

Moniker and budget aside, further down the graphic is a list of three US government agencies who will contribute to BRAIN.  It’s understandable the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and the NSF (National Science Foundation) are involved. However, the agency receiving the biggest chunk of funding – half to be exact – is DARPA , Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For those unfamiliar with this organization, it is a branch of the US Department of Defense.

DARPA dabbles in everything from passive radar to robotic armies. And DARPA has quietly been in the brain biz for decades.  The agency has released some information here and there regarding its endeavors, but for the most part, and for most people, their neuroscience research and discoveries have flown under the radar.  For those who have heard of DARPA, chances are it’s because they keep a low-key, positive image in the public domain by peppering mainstream periodicals such as Popular Science with a menu of underway and wish-list programs for the civilian population to peruse and marvel at.

On the surface, it all sounds as cool as DARPA wants it to.  So is there any reason for concern about  the agency dominating the BRAIN budget?  Fair warning:  this is about to get weird.

In an article published this past May in Scientific American, John Horgan explains, Why You Should Care about Pentagon Funding of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative,

There’s nothing new about the militarization of brain science. Ten years ago, when I was writing an article on how information is encoded in the brain, Darpa was already a major funder of research on neural coding and neural prosthetics. Darpa program manager Alan Rudolph told me back then that the agency was interested in a wide range of potential applications, including “performance enhancement” of soldiers via either implanted or external electrodes linked to electronic devices.

I’ll leave it to you, reader, to peruse the original article to which John Horgan is referring and draw your own conclusion about what DARPA has been up to in brain science over the last 15 years on the dime of the Federal Government.

If it all sounds like the stuff from which movies are made, it is.  In reality, funding a Hollywood film about ‘futuristic-brain-type-stuff’ may be more difficult than getting the US government to pony up for the real thing. There is actually a how-to handbook that guides neuroscientists through navigating the process for obtaining research funding from the military.

“…as I have pointed out previously, neuroscientists are pursuing military funding much more eagerly and openly, as evidenced both by the BRAIN Initiative and by this 2009 publication of the National Research Council, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications. Overseen by leading neuroscientists, including Floyd Bloom and Michael Gazzaniga, the report advises researchers how to tap into military funding. The report advocates “…enhancement of soldier performance, and improving cognitive and behavioral performance using interdisciplinary approaches and technological investments.”

And what a pool of funding there is to be had.  In 2011 alone, the US Department of Defense spent more than $350 million US dollars on neuroscience – that they are willing to admit to.

Since the military is now openly recruiting and funding brain research, it begs  questions from many camps, including the scientific community, future neuroscientsts and even (quite colorfully, I might add) conspiracy theorists.  Is the military fast becoming one of the only ways to acquire funding significant enough to perform meaningful neuro research? Could this result in brain research being monopolized for defense purposes? If this emerging model of funding becomes the norm, will it stifle the creation of a diverse network of contributors through which innovation and discoveries can be pooled in order to make significant advances?

Definitely food for thought.

In defense of the researchers seeking military funding, it’s getting extremely hard to get any research funding from anywhere. You’d think it would be different for neuroscientists than computer scientists, but no. So much for remaining competitive in science and engineering; our lawmakers and populace don’t want to spend much money on keeping us at the lead of the pack in terms of research and innovation…

One of those infographics out there shows how much US taxpayer money goes to different departments. What we spend on science through NSF, the primary source of funding for basic research in the US, is absurdly small – something like 2% max, but I think it was more like 1/2%. The amount of money spent on defense is exorbitant, so they have the bucks to spare when it comes to funding science.

Hi, Dee Dee! I hope all is going well with you. Been offline for a while – I need to get caught up with your blog.

So yeah, this funding thing in general is really out of whack. I can’t understand why the people of the US aren’t alarmed about this country falling woefully behind with research, development, innovation and basically that we’re unable to kick everybody’s else’s science-butt like we used to. I could spend days on a soapbox and rant about our inadequate education system, the general lack of motivation because kids aren’t being inspired, the ridiculous cost of higher education, even the need for programs to get women interested in science, too. Heh, I’m digressing, aren’t I?

At the risk of giving away a spoiler for the next post, I am completely onboard with why researchers have to tap into military dollars. And new initiatives have no choice but to build upon military research that’s already been conducted. One thing that bothers me greatly is how the NSF isn’t what it used to be. It sounds great that the US has a National Science Foundation, but when they aren’t actually driving programs like BRAIN…well, it’s just sad.


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