Barack Obama's BRAIN Initiative Vs. Bioengineered Gills And One-Wheeled SegWays

Barack Obama's BRAIN Initiative Vs. Bioengineered Gills And One-Wheeled SegWays

April 03, 2013
Originally published in Forbes

In a widely reported announcement, President Barack Obama outlined a major research initiative to map the human brain, building on his State of the Union appeal for more federal research (“We need to make those investments”).

Media and the Web went wild over the BRAIN initiative (or “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies”), and it is obviously sexy. NPR fawned over it on the Diane Rehm Show.

Many of us deeply desire these advances. But sometimes government inhibits rather than facilitates, even without realizing it.

Let me just state it flatly: Overabundance of taxpayer funding of scientific and technology research is incompatible with a future of optimally and lightly regulated science and technolgy specifically, and with limited government generally.

Aside from the diversion of funds from preferred ends, federal dominance of core research agendas can distort the path of science and sow seeds for new regulation associated with compulsory taxpayer funding and pork politics.

Moreover, there are opportunity costs. Politics cannot determine optimal research portfolios, especially in an age of sequesters and perpetual deficits. We have a National Nanotechnology Initiative and a National Broadband Plan – but not a National Robotic Asteroid Mining Plan, or National Fly-By Asteroid Nuke Plan. Could fund this, could fund that.

In federal water desalination policy, why the politically preferred brackish groundwater desalination instead of seawater?; Why not ditch desalination altogether for investment in Great Lakes-to-Southwest water transport pipelines parallel to the Keystone XL or other proposed corridors, repair of leaky existing infrastructure, or cargo shipping?

I’m not calling for federal resolution of any such controversies;  Rather, I state a new maxim: How does America decide between the above, the BRAIN Initiative, bio-engineered human gills, one-wheeled SegWays and getting fresh water? By not making them political choices. 

I’m not picking on Obama here. Both parties channel federal research dollars to districts in defiance of scientific or economic merit, and ignore perhaps superior private allocations of funds across the nation’s labs, entrepreneurs and scientists.

The proper emphases for research is impervious to political resolution. Behaving otherwise will create entire industries, even an economy disconnected from actual needs.

Government is an institution of force, not suited to the very production of knowledge itself as opposed to protecting the intellectual property rights that such expanded knowledge generates. There’s a difference.

We should avoid distortions and bubbles created by government investment undisciplined by competition. The latter is actually more democratic than politics, despite what schools say. Government-centric science policy spawns needless disputes over:

  • Merits of basic vs. applied research
  • Relative impact of private vs. public funding on discovery and progress and political pressures to tip the scales toward the latter
  • Alleged objectivity of government vs. “industry” science, and the improper chastisement of industry science in the marketplace of ideas
  • Ownership or intellectual property status of federally funded discoveries (If the taxpayers funded it, is it “public property”? Caution.)
  • Coping with the inevitable risks created by new technologies
  • Citizens’ desire to not fund projects of which they disapprove
  • Conflicts of interest among federally funded scientists with connections to private sector

Science can advance human welfare and remain most relevant when pulled into being by the mankind’s actual needs, including practical ones, and ought not recklessly disconnect science from the voluntary sector.

We should reject the sometimes implied disdain for applied, practical research relative to basic in in advancing basic knowledge. It’s a long story, but pigeon poop helped lead to discovery of the Big Bang background radiation. (Curious aside: Teflon, Tang and Velcro didn’t spin off from NASA. Memory foam did though.)

Adding to the millions of dollars of subsidies already in existence doesn’t necessarily equate to optimal advancement of science and technology. The “broken window fallacy” persists: We don’t see the science not created when resources re-deploy to  politically favored projects and fields.

The national government’s role in actually fostering knowledge wealth is limited because the essence of its power is that of forced redistribution. Even if that didn’t matter — and it does — it can’t fund every good thing.

Indeed, the federal role in liberalizing the American economy so that others can foster scientific wealth is the very essence and responsibility of governing. Bolstering technology and science requires tax and regulatory liberalization, and vigorous market competition among ideas for private funding.

Our policies tend toward the opposite.

Indeed, it is improper for sciences and applications (BRAIN, energy, nanotechnology, genome, etc.) to proceed artificially walled off from one another in a political appropriations environment; That undermines the swirling competition, cooperation, and unforeseen alliances needed for U.S. economic and scientific wealth.

Granted, outcome-oriented  interventions will produce prominent successes; that’s why the BRAIN Initiative appeals so mightily. We know it will amaze us.

But government science can fall short taken as a whole and compared to the unseen potential. Interventions, subsidies, and regulations create an inefficient scientific enterprise compared to a superior “separation of science and state.”