Editorial: Increased federal funding a step towards discovery


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President Obama announced last week a new federally funded initiative to map the human brain as part of his administration’s program to take on the “Grand Challenges” of the 21st century.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project is the administration’s plan to invest $100 million in research that could lead to a better understanding of brain functions and improved treatments for such diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Researchers at the University of Iowa such as William Talman, a professor of neurology and neuroscience, were happy to hear of the president’s proposal, according to a Daily Iowan report.

“As a scientist who has advocated for increased funding in research, I can’t do anything but applaud the president,” Talman told the DI.

Though Obama’s investment is relatively modest given the complexity of brain mapping and research, we welcome his commitment to scientific research funding even as deficit reduction continues to dominate much of the political debate in Washington.

We believe that the BRAIN initiative and further investments in scientific research will be a boon for both the private sector and the nation’s universities, which stand to receive millions of dollars in research grants.

The president set the tone for his research investments in February’s State of the Union Address, when he said that if the United States is interested in economic growth and private-sector development, the government would have to “invest in the best ideas.”

“Now, is not the time to gut … job-creating investments in science and innovation,” he said in the address. “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.”

The president’s praise of research and development may have been a bit hyperbolic, but there is reason to believe that government investment in research produces substantial private-sector returns.

The Human Genome Project, a federally funded effort to map the human genome that began in 1990 and finished in 2003, generated $141 in economic activity for every $1 of federal investment, according to a 2011 study by the research firm Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.

Over its 14-year run, federal investment in the project totaled around $3.8 billion; Battelle Technology estimates that the project had a total economic impact of nearly $800 billion.

The economic benefits of scientific research are not limited to such large-scale projects as the Human Genome Project. A separate study found that $31.2 billion in research investment through the National Institutes of Health generated more than $68 billion for the economy in 2010.

It is fortunate, then, that Obama’s plans for research investment goes well beyond the BRAIN project. In his fiscal 2014 budget proposal released Wednesday, he calls for increased funding for alternative-energy development as well as mental-health and gun-violence research.

His proposed budget would also increase funding for the National Science Foundation by nearly $600 million, though NASA’s funding would fall slightly.

As Washington turns its attention once again to deficit reduction, we welcome increased federal investment in scientific research. Obama’s BRAIN Initiative and other publicly funded research will benefit the country scientifically, medically, and economically; such investments should have priority over deficit reduction.

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