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Is the World's Top Neuroscience Group Quashing Dissent on the U.S. BRAIN Initiative?

The president of the Society for Neuroscience asked its members to stay positive about a multibillion project to record all the brain's neurons in action, but some psychologists have called foul on this scientific advocacy
BRAIN initiative



Harvard University

Fresh from attending President Barack Obama’s announcement of the BRAIN Initiative at the White House on April 2nd, Society for Neuroscience president Larry Swanson, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California, composed this letter to SFN’s nearly 42,000 members.

In the 5 April missive, Swanson, writing on behalf of SFN’s executive committee, calls the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative “tremendously positive” for neuroscience. Its aim is to let scientists examine and record the activity of millions of neurons at they function at the speed of thought; ultimately, applications to several human diseases are hoped for.

The project comes at a critical time in neuroscience, Swanson writes: a time of huge new opportunities coupled with stagnant or slumping government budgets for basic science research. (In the budget he released last week, Obama asked Congress to provide about $100 million to launch the BRAIN Initiative in 2014.)

But the SFN letter makes it clear that Swanson wants a lid put on public criticism of the nascent project, which is expected to last more than a decade and ultimately cost several billion dollars. “It is important that our community be perceived as positive about the incredible opportunity represented in the President’s announcement,” Swanson wrote. “If we are perceived as unreasonably negative or critical about initial details, we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started.”

In case anyone missed the point, he adds that he encourages “healthy debate” and “rigorous dialogue” but urges SFN members to “bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues.” He also notes that the National Institutes of Health has enlisted a team of “distinguished” neuroscientists to conduct a “rigorous” planning process.

The letter’s admonitions did not sit well with some in the neuroscience community, and on Friday, Avery Gilbert, an olfactory psychologist and author who writes the blog First Nerve posted an entry entitled “Society for Neuroscience President: Shut Up, He Explained.”

Gilbert introduced Swanson’s letter, which he posted in its entirety, as follows: “This disgraceful note is what passes for science advocacy today.” He complains that the letter and the views it represents amount to a blatant grab for money: “Swanson wants to suppress open dissent so as not to jeopardize SFN’s rent-seeking activities.”

Today, Nature  asked Gilbert, who consults for scent-sensitive industry clients including Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble  as president of Synesthetics, Inc., what he objects to in the BRAIN Initiative itself.  He said: “The BRAIN project typifies this Administration’s predilection for big government “solutions” flavored with Chicago-style politics. Central planning rarely works out well, especially not in science.”

Several on-line commenters agreed with Gilbert’s critique. “[Swanson] writes a long letter without any real justification for why the money is needed. How about some results?” Anonymous commented.

But Larry Goldstein, a prominent Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of California, San Diego, disagrees. “I thought Swanson’s letter was fine,” he says. “Thoughtful, constructive, and optimistic. If we want to see long-term support of scientific initiatives, I think this is the kind of tone that will make the most difference with those who pay the bills, that is, taxpayers.”

Today, Swanson himself told Nature:  “My point in the letter was that this project — still very much in its early formative stages — represents a remarkable and perhaps fleeting opportunity… . It is my continuing hope that we all reserve judgment on the merits of the broader project until we first learn more about what it will prioritize and fund, and that is going to take some time. If we condemn such a promising investment in neuroscience prematurely, before its focus is known and without engaging scientifically, I firmly believe we will have missed a tremendous chance to advance the field.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature and the Nature News Blog. The article was first published on April 15, 2013.

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