BRAIN Initiative Could Be An Economic Gold Mine For the U.S.

Last week, the White House announced the launch of the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (BRAIN), an ambitious plan to map and better understand the human brain. By mobilizing dozens of governmental agencies and private organizations and nearly quarter of a billion dollars, BRAIN has the potential to breathe new life into America’s culture of innovation at a time when budget cuts and political gridlock in Washington are all too often laying waste to bold new ideas.

Modeled loosely after the wildly successful Human Genome Project, the BRAIN initiative underscores the role public-private partnerships (P3s) can play to keep America competitive on the world stage. By slashing the federal research and development budget by 7.3% in 2013, sequestration will eat into America’s greatest source of economic strength – technological innovation. Indeed, since World War II, three-quarters of America’s economic growth has been the result of technological innovation. Without filling this new gap in R&D funding, the non-partisan think tank Information Technology & Innovation Foundation calculates the U.S. will lose 600,000 jobs and half a trillion dollars in economic output over the next ten years.

In the face of nearly $1 trillion in budget cuts, how do we prevent fiscal austerity from sapping America’s innovative authority and competitive edge? One solution is to leverage the resources and expertise of the private sector, from companies, research universities and non-profit organizations, to create transformative P3s. That is exactly the thinking behind BRAIN. More than half of BRAIN’s $222 million budget in 2014 will come from companies, foundations and universities that have a proven track record of developing innovative neurological technologies.

The partnership will also lead to benefits beyond filling the funding gap. BRAIN will link research efforts that have to date been conducted largely in isolation and without much coordination by creating a high-level working group chaired by Rockefeller University and Stanford University. By pooling scientific findings and funding, this new network will accelerate research in a way individual efforts cannot.

A similar approach, with the Human Genome Project, led to the complete mapping of the human genome in just ten years. Effective collaboration meant the landmark project was completed five years ahead of schedule and $300 million under budget, all the while unlocking over $800 billion in new economic activity. A government impact study found a return of $141 for every $1 invested by the government in the genome project.

The economic case for the BRAIN Initiative is even more urgent. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates the disease cost the U.S. $216 billion in 2012 and number that will rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050. The U.S. has also fallen behind global competitors in scientific research. The EU has for a year now been operating its own, larger (1 billion euro) initiative to map the brain and China is years ahead with its own Brainnetome project.

We should be celebrating the BRAIN initiative for its unique potential to unlock the mysteries of the human brain. But we should also be lauding it as just the bold type of collaboration we need to continue America’s tradition of being a world leader in technical and medical innovation.