Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), introduced him as the “Scientist in Chief.” And he introduced himself as “the kid who had trouble with high-school physics.” But there was no mistaking the passion for his subject of the man who stood in front of us in the East Room of the White House this morning, announcing a major federal initiative in brain science.
It was President Obama at his rhetorical best, mixing easy banter with a deeply serious expression of his commitment to the brain research initiative that he described as the “next great American project.”
When he described the pathos of someone watching “a beloved family member slip behind the mask of Parkinson’s disease,” you could practically feel a shudder of recognition among the normally restrained scientists, government officials and advocacy group leaders like myself who packed the room. Perhaps “Empathizer in Chief” is more to the point; the guy really seems to mean it.
So what does this mean for Parkinson’s? We won’t know for sure at least until the President delivers his budget message to Congress next Wednesday, and possibly not even then. But the overall strategy of the BRAIN Initiative is clear: to use the resources of the federal government and private sectors to find out more than we know now about how the brain works – specifically, how the various parts connect with one another, and in what patterns.
All of this could have exciting implications for finding the solution to Parkinson’s disease.
As Dr. Eric Kandel, the Columbia University scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on memory, said to me at a reception following the event, “this is an historic moment!”
We’ll see. There are several big questions to be answered, beginning with money:
- The President is calling for initial spending of $100 million in the year that begins October 1, 2013, but it is far from clear how much of this will be new money and how much will be existing funds repackaged for the new initiative.
- Then there’s the matter of who spends it and how between the NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. And there will be others.
- Lastly, how will patient advocates be involved? PDF certainly supports this initiative’s collaborative nature, utilizing federal research agencies and private scientific organizations. We urge the President to expand this commitment to include patient advocates as we have done through the Parkinson’s Advocates in Research program. After all, the people affected each day by Parkinson’s disease are critical to our goals of finding better treatments at a faster pace.
But the overall picture is encouraging — even exciting. This the first time that the President, after years of slogging through the thickets of the nation’s fiscal crisis looking for an exit, has made a major statement about medical research, comparing the challenge — and the potential for its success — with the moon shot of the 1960s, the development of the computer chip in the 1970s, and the exploration of the human genome of the 1990s.
The common thread through all of these triumphs was what he described as the American “genius for innovation,” an outgrowth of a national character of “dreamers and risk-takers.”
“How can we afford to do this?” he asked. Then he answered himself: “How can we afford not to?”
To learn more see PDF’s official statement on our website here.