Science Directions

In this year's State of the Union Address, President Obama recognized the value of investments in science. He declared that "now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race." For those of us who promote the value of federal investments in science and research, this was music to our ears.

The president even called out neuroscience as one example of leading-edge science and innovation, pointing out that "scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's." Brain scientists rejoiced! Even NIH Director Francis Collins tweeted "Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU."

The science press was soon abuzz over news of a Brain Mapping Initiative. Within a week of the president's speech, New York Times writer John Markoff described plans for a new ambitious decade-long $3 billion research effort comparable in scope to the Human Genome Project.

It took a few weeks for a clearer picture of this initiative to emerge. Writing in Science Insider, Emily Underwood and Jocelyn Kaiser explain that this Brain Mapping Initiative is probably less about a new line item in the federal research budget and more about capitalizing on rapidly expanding progress in neuroscience and nanotechnology — areas in which NIH and the National Science Foundation are already heavily invested. It is less about immediate applications to human beings and more about refining and developing the effort in model organisms. It will be worms at first, then fruit flies and by 2025 or so, we will work our way up to zebra fish.

As basic science goes, this is exciting stuff. Even NSF, which has not historically made neuroscience one of its higher priorities, is getting into the act. On March 4, NSF issued a Dear Colleague Letter, encouraging proposals that "accelerate new integrative research across disciplines and across spatial and temporal scales of analysis in cognitive science and neuroscience." The goal is clearly to stimulate cross-disciplinary integration to advance our basic knowledge of the brain and to develop new tools for doing it.

It is important that we understand the source of all this scientific energy and excitement. Much of it comes from those who are working the leading edges of this scientific frontier — the neuroscientists and nanotechnologists who know quite well where we are today and see very clearly where we can get with sustained effort. For them, the energy comes from knowing it can be done and the thrill associated with trying to do it.

This is best understood as bottom-up science. It is the kind of work that sustains most of us in day-to-day basic science — doing the experiments, solving problems, inventing technologies and procedures, explaining results and planning next steps. Bottom-up science gets us from one discovery to the next.

The contrast to bottom-up science is top-down science. Top-down science begins with a clear articulation of the goal, and then proceeds by asking, "How do we get there?" President Obama identified one of those goals in his State of the Union Address — unlocking the answers to Alzheimer's. To this list we might add such goals as preventing Parkinson's disease, understanding autism, curing schizophrenia, and shedding new light on how people think and learn.

With brain science at the brink of tremendous advances, will it be bottom-up science or top-down science? If it follows the path of simply building on the latest technological advances to get to the next one, it will be bottom up. Important science will get done, and we will indeed develop the technology to map the human brain. Will it produce a cure for Alzheimer's disease, or shed new light on how people think and learn? It may, or it may not. That's the risk of bottom-up science. It simply takes us wherever it leads.

Top-down science encourages all viable approaches. Some will fail, others will succeed. If we recognize the Brain Mapping Initiative as only one of many potential approaches to achieving important goals, it will be top-down. That's the beauty of top-down science. It takes us where we want to go by supporting a diverse scientific portfolio, motivated by an ultimate goal and always keeping that goal in front of us.