The Harper government should get its grey matter in gear and try to hook up Canada into President Barack Obama’s new $100-million brain-research program.
Scientific research, after all, knows no national borders. If the Americans are going to put more brainpower into what makes that organ tick, it would be in Canada’s interest to be part of a larger effort. More brains, if you’ll pardon the expression, are better than fewer in this endeavour.
Think of the International Space Station and the Canadarm. Think of the Structural Genomics Initiative. Think of high-energy physics collaboration. These all feature Canada’s participation in wider scientific endeavours, especially across the border.
Think of the fact that basic science is increasingly collaborative. Canada, which accounts for about 5 per cent of world scientific research, can achieve best results by fitting into larger research networks. It would be nice to think that Canada alone, through its own researchers, can achieve great results, and sometimes it does. But collaboration, being part of international networks, is where it’s at these days.
The Harper government gave $100-million to Brain Canada, with a mandate to find matching funds for that $100-million to double the total available for research. So the government, to its credit, has already identified neurology writ large as a future priority for research.
So, now, has Mr. Obama. In his budget to Congress, he proposes $100-million for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, directed largely by the prestigious National Institutes of Health, with additional participation from four private-sector partners, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
Whether the $100-million will survive congressional scrutiny is unknown, given the size of the U.S. fiscal deficit. Plenty of worthwhile public programs are being sliced and diced, with more paring to come. Chances are, however, that the President’s pitch for brain research is so far above partisan politics, and so evidently an important area for research, that he might get what he seeks.
Canadian brain scientists already work with U.S. partners across the border, as scientists from both countries do in many fields. Canada has a track record in neurology that dates back to Wilder Penfield’s work in Montreal. And it has a federal agency, Brain Canada, whose mandate is to promote research.
Who knows where brain research will lead? Who knows, for that matter, where pure research leads? At one level, we know that, with an aging population, certain age-related neurological diseases – such as Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia – will be more common. It would be wrong to say the injection of more money and brainpower will cure such ailments any time soon, but additional pure research that might slowly lead us toward progress would obviously be welcome.
Canada couldn’t ask the U.S. just because the two countries are good friends and work together on other science projects. Canada would have to come with money and serious proposals about how to integrate our researchers into what’s being prepared in the U.S. The time to talk to the Americans is now, while they’re just beginning to think about their BRAIN plan. A long delay might mean key decisions will already have been taken.
How much money would it take to have skinny in the game? That’s what Canadian officials might want to discuss with their American counterparts, especially those at the National Institutes of Health. There would also have to be a sort of green light from the political world that the BRAIN initiative welcomes “foreign” participation and not be an “only in America” scheme.
If the U.S. government is proposing $100-million, and the private foundations are contributing additional sums, perhaps $20-million or so would be the Canadian entry fee for a seat at the table. That sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t, given the government’s total research funding budget. It would allow Canada to lever that money into networks spending much more.
Hooking into BRAIN is worth a try. And it would certainly come out better than the F-35 collaboration.