If there’s any initiative that highlights the usefulness of public funding in promoting basic research, it’s the Obama administration’s emerging proposal to map the circuitry of the human brain. A deeper understanding of how the brain works could assist not just in combating neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but also in the fields of supercomputing and artificial intelligence. Yet the research required to map the brain is time- and money-intensive, and few if any private entities have the capability and willingness to devote several billion dollars to it.
The initiative, expected to be unveiled in President Obama’s upcoming budget proposal, has been widely analogized to the Human Genome Project — which used $3.8 billion in federal money to sequence our species’ genetic code, generated significant scientific benefits, and produced an economic impact of $796 billion, by one estimate. Similarly, the brain-mapping project will yield benefits for the entire global scientific community, but the administration can also feel secure in the knowledge that US universities, hospitals, and biotech firms are well poised to build on whatever the mapping initiative uncovers.
All too often, federal budgeting is presented as a tradeoff between public and private spending. But roads and bridges aren’t the only public expenditures that remove barriers to private economic activity. Federally funded brain research will vastly expand the frontiers of what’s possible for everyone.