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Discussing Obama's Brain-mapping Project

The proposed $3-billion Brain Activity Map is a formidably, if not unrealistically, ambitious undertaking but the merits and weaknesses of the idea can be explored even by nonspecialists.


  1. Serious science rarely manages to make its way into the annual presidential State of the Union addresses, so when President Obama spoke of the importance of "mapping the human brain" during his on February 12, it caught the attention of many. That vague reference took on even more importance, however, in light of the tweet that Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, made moments later:
  2. With that, the world came to understand that Obama was throwing support behind the idea for a $3-billion, decade-or-more Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, a loosely defined effort that The Kavli Foundation had been trying to organize since 2011. These three articles for Time, Smithsonian, and The Scientist represent just a bit of the news coverage that the announcement garnered.
  3. As noted in those stories, details of what BAM would entail were hard to come by, and even many neuroscientists harbored doubts about whether the time was right for a high-profile, inevitably politicized project like this one, especially given the prospect of massive budget cuts that loomed with the March 1 sequester deadline. In this context, Twitter served one of its invaluable functions for the science writing community: as the water cooler around which we could gather to chat about the news and gripes of the day—a function that is in many ways as informative and important as any other research that we do. I offer the following conversation in which I participated as a sample.

    I had just finished reading David Wagner's story, "Why Some Scientists Aren't Happy About Obama's $3 Billion Brain Research Plan" for The Atlantic Wire, and was moved to ask a question of the Twitterverse. Ben Lillie of The Story Collider was first to reply.
  4. But of course, since Ben and I were having this conversation publicly, others quickly joined in with welcome contributions.
  5. That book being, of course, Cracking the Genome:Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA, by Kevin Davies (Free Press, 2002). [Link to Goodreads discussion of the book; link to page.]