Jennifer Raymond nails a lot of what’s wrong with #BRAINI hype and goals

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I teach a graduate seminar where we train the next generation of neuroscientists to design experiments to uncover principles of brain function. For most of the course, students design experiments constrained by existing technologies. But at the end of the course, we encourage them to dream big and imagine what they would do if they had the ability to measure anything they wanted about the brain—every molecule, structural detail, and electrical signal of every neuron. As students engage in this exercise, they quickly realize that better experimental tools and more data cannot replace the need for thoughtfully designed experiments to address specific questions. Supporters of the Obama/NIH and European brain initiatives must likewise recognize that the tools and databases they are promising are only half of the solution. We also need scientists who can skillfully apply such tools to specific questions about how neural circuits function. Unfortunately, scientists with this expertise are now struggling to survive low research-funding levels, and talented young scientists are seeing this and rejecting research careers because they don’t seem like a viable option. Thus, the success of the “big data” brain initiatives in accelerating discovery and cures will depend entirely on whether they are accompanied by improved support for investigator-initiated, hypothesis-driven research. Investment in better hammers will not pay off if the skilled carpenters go out of business.

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7 Comments on “Jennifer Raymond nails a lot of what’s wrong with #BRAINI hype and goals”

  1. jipkin says:

    hmm I think she’s missed what’s happened with BRAINI. It started as a tool-making enterprise to support systems neuro and has now (predictably) transitioned into plain systems neuro (circuits!), with incentive to make new tools on the side. BAM was about hammer-makers, BRAINI is more about hammer users.

  2. while I agree wholeheartedly with her “we need both” assertion, let’s not forget that most carpenters don’t use hammers anymore.

    http://www.lowes.com/cd_Power+Nailer+Buying+Guide_493845449_

    we need better metaphors

  3. a neuroscientist without a metaphor is like a banker without a hammer.

  4. actually, better would be:

    a neuroscientist without a metaphor is like a carpenter without overalls.

  5. jipkin says:

    a neuroscientist without a metaphor about a neuroscientist without a metaphor is too meta for me.

  6. rxnm says:

    I think BRAINI is still focused on tools, with this more recent “circuit” talk thrown in to try to appease dissenters.

  7. jipkin says:

    I think the tool makers want to make tools and the tool users want to use them. Since users outnumber makers (in the field and on the NIH planning committee and probably on the future grant review committees), I predict that users will get more of the grant money than the makers. Perhaps it won’t be equitably distributed and perhaps this prediction will only apply to the NIH/NSF portion of funds, and not DARPA’s contribution (_if_ the same agencies are all contributing as they are now _if_ the actual thing gets funded by Congress).

    And “circuits” has been around since the original BAM papers and the people who had the idea for the whole thing were circuits people (e.g. Yuste) and guess which neuropeople are most excited about it? If anything, the BRAINI has expanded from what BAM was. BAM was essentially just #s 3 and 4 on the list of 9 goals in the NIH interim report: http://www.nih.gov/science/brain/09162013-Interim%20Report_Final%20Composite.pdf

    The real appeasement was adding in the stuff like cell census (for the molecular types), the mapping components (for the anatomists), the behavioral stuff (for, well, behavioral people), the human imaging stuff (so clinical people don’t feel left out), etc. BAM was all about circuits, but as soon as $3 billion was rumored there was going to be no end to the grumbling from everyone left out if the whole pot went to just systems/circuits people. Surely everyone has a grant proposal they can write where they adapt the experiments they want to do with a specific aim to test a new technology while they do it.


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