Just this week, President Obama announced a major scientific initiative that would lead us into the next great frontier: The “BRAIN” Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). This initiative, the details of which are scarce and not yet fleshed out according to Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health, has a price tag of $100m. It’s being sold not just as an advancement in the fields of science and medicine, but one that will, you guessed it, stimulate the economy and create jobs.
One can only guess the true motivation behind the BRAIN initiative; in fact, heads of two leading neurological research organizations have called into question the goals and intentions underlying the President’s proposal.
Dr. Susan Fitzpatrick of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a leading funding source for neuroscientific research, characterized her reaction to the announcement as one of “befuddlement,” largely because she’s “not quite sure what the initiative is.” Likewise, Dr. David Hovda of the Brain Injury Research Center at UCLA said, “This sounds more like a PR splash,” promising more than it will be able to deliver, than anything of real substance.
Perhaps the President has been somewhat inspired by the recent brain research coming out of The University of New Mexico, the findings of which were recently published by Dr. Kent Kiehl in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some might see a loose connection between the UNM study and the fictional science in the major motion picture Minority Report.
While Dr. Kiehl’s findings don’t actually argue that we can accurately predict an individual’s predisposition to commit a specific crime (in a specific time and place, as the movie’s “pre-crime unit” suggests), his team of scientists has discovered a particular activity in the brain (impulsivity) that is directly correlated with recidivism rates. The findings indicate that criminals with low levels of impulsivity control are four times more likely to repeat offend and end up back in jail in as little as four months.
Dr. Kiehl suggests that this brain science could be used as part of a review or parole process when determining whether or not a convicted criminal is ready to re-enter society. There are clear ethical implications to this science, but it is possible that this administration is seeing some ways to connect the dots between some of its other, more nefarious initiatives (i.e., the drones program) and neuroscience.
Again, because the details of the proposal have not yet been released – and the current leaders in the neuroscience research fields haven’t been consulted on this initiative at all – one can only speculate on the objectives of the research. Left with no details on the proposal, and understanding that Congress will have to approve the funding before we can learn the details of the plan, skeptics of the President are likely to see this as yet another among many steps he’s taken to move us closer to the dystopian worlds of popular film and literature, where maybe the next “great” frontier will include Thought Police.