On April 2, 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative (BRAIN is actually an an acronym for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies- too cute), a 100 million dollar investment (later increased) by 10 groups, with the 3 main US government groups being NSF, NIH, and DARPA. DARPA would be responsible for 50 million of the 100 million to be invested. Private sector partners, such as The Allen Institute for Brain Research, HHMI, Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, are also involved.
DARPA? That acronym stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research wing of the Department of Defense. This is their mission: Creating breakthrough technologies for national security. As it says on the DARPA website, you can read “Better Understanding of Human Brain Supports National Security: DARPA plans $50 million in 2014 investments to increase understanding of brain function and create new capabilities.”
New capabilities for what? It is pretty clear from DAPRA’s past exploits and present plans that its mission contradicts the mission of most
scientific organizations- to do good science for mankind. Not for some, who happen to be americans. Not for war to protect US “interests.”
Jonathan Moreno has examined this intersection of neuroscience and DARPA in his 2006 book, Brain Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, and the 2012 update, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century.
It is well worth reading for all scientists, but should be mandatory for neuroscientists, and certainly for the ones involved in this initiative. Moreno gives lists of DARPA research proposals that read like the CIA want ads. Brain control? Better warriors who can stay awake and fight without pain? Reading the minds of your enemy? Technology to predict the behavior of individuals and groups? I don’t agree with Moreno’s pragmatic conclusion- that basic scientists and the military should work together in order to maintain openness and restrict the possible dastardly applications of DARPA’s brain research. I don’t agree that the trickle down benefits- that is, innovation for the public that may merge from a DARPA-funded discovery- are worth it. But Moreno does point out the ethical dangers of this kind of work, and encourages scientists to consider the end result of their research.
Nature Magazine blog reporter Vivien Marx, and the response of attendees at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience in San Diego to DARPA’s inclusion in the BRAIN initiative show a rather scary pragmatism. In an article reporting on a town hall meeting at the Neuroscience meeting, “Brain initiatives galore, smiles aplenty,” Marx describes with enthusiasm the different funding model of DARPA (DARPA uses contracts rather than grants, allowing it to be more nimble), and seems fine with quoting Colonel Geoffrey Ling of DARPA in saying, “Yes, we build guns and bombs, that is true.” Perhaps there was more disagreement with DARPA at the meeting than indicated.
But why would scientists think it is okay to be partners with an agency whose mission is contrary to peace and health?
Why is it okay for basic research funds to be channeled through DARPA instead of through NSF or NIH? Why on earth should the Department of Defense be dictating what research is done?
DARPA says it is committed to sharing results- does anyone really think that is going to happen?
People seem to be most enthusiastic about DARPA’s intent to “develop solutions to prevent, treat, or even reverse the harmful effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Traumatic Brain Injury in returning war veterans.” Ah, remember tobacco companies and their interest in health issues? Stop making cigarettes. Stop sending kids to wars. PTSD cannot be cured: it is a physiological response to trauma, and the trauma of killing is overwhelming.
Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University in a recent NY Times op-ed, pointed out that there is little discussion of what we will/should do with the information collected from the BRAIN initiative. Yes, we hope results will go towards understanding the brain and helping those with mental illness and brain injury. Yes, it is complicated. But perhaps one of the reasons is that DARPA’s mission wouldn’t fit well in with what most people want from an initiative this expansive and expensive. Telling the public that their money will be put to the Department of Defense’s mind control experiments might not be as happily accepted as it is by the scientists who are part of the initiative.
The potential to understand ourselves better, to prevent and heal mental illness and brain injury for all people, is immense. The Department of Defense and DARPA do not belong in the BRAIN initiative.
Readings about DARPA and the brain-
John Horgan May 22, 2013. Crosscheck (Scientific American blog) Why you should care about Pentagon funding of Obama’s BRAIN initiative.
Peter Freed, M.D. April 3, 2013. Eisenhower’s ghost and Obama’s brain. Neuroself.
Peter Freed, M.D. May 23, 2013. Neuroself. DARPA follow up: Where the scientific-military-industrial complex is headed.