Will the BRAIN Initiative Realize its Full Potential in a Budget-Cutting Climate?

Mary Wooleyby Mary Woolley, Research!America president and CEO

Lofty goals are exactly what are needed to tackle daunting challenges. President Obama has recently announced just such a lofty goal. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN Initiative) promises profound impact for patients, caregivers, clinicians and others who cope with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. So many of us are excited at the prospect of taking a giant step forward toward understanding the mysteries of the brain and improving quality of life for millions of Americans. But excitement is not enough; this is a time for robust advocacy.

Lofty goals are the secret of high-impact advocacy. Research!America has long advocated making research for health a number-one national priority and further advocates that science must be funded at a level commensurate with scientific opportunity. We know how lofty those goals are — but we do not temper them because we know they are just the kind of goals patients and their families have in mind when they contemplate the reality that we don’t yet have the answers to Alzheimer’s and a host of other devastating diseases and disabilities. It defies common sense that today — in the era of personalized medicine, the wizardry of cutting-edge medical devices and the awesome potential of nanomedicine; in an era when scientific opportunity has never been greater —research for health is so meagerly funded, so underpowered to accomplish its mission.

Given this reality, how much of the potential of the BRAIN Initiative will we realize, and when? The answer assuredly lies with Congress — and with advocates.

In his FY14 budget, President Obama proposed $100 million to fund the beginning of the BRAIN Initiative, which is to be carried out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and several private foundations. This modest budget proposal is a start and will lay the groundwork through expert planning, but it barely scratches the surface of what will soon be needed for a project of this magnitude. A working group is on a fast track with a goal of delivering preliminary recommendations to the NIH in September for initiatives that would be funded with 2014 dollars. Yet, funding for this program and other research initiatives remains at risk in the current budget-cutting climate. If Congress doesn’t realize the potential of the BRAIN Initiative and other noteworthy research, how can we expect to combat Alzheimer’s disease and bring hope to families anxious for a cure?

This is the time for all of us to speak up.

Congress is working on the FY14 budget this summer. Are you aware what has been proposed for the agencies that are our lead in medical research? Starting October 1st, the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could take an almost 20% additional cut if a bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee carries the day. That’s on top of sequestration, 10 years of across-the-board spending cuts that will undoubtedly jeopardize medical progress. The BRAIN Initiative won’t get out of the starting blocks if a 20% additional cut is passed through Congress; the initiative might not even survive the next round of sequestration cuts. Those sequestration-driven funding cuts are already starting to be felt by patients and their families — some unable to participate in now-cancelled clinical trials.  The cuts also reduce our ability to control health care expenditures by delaying the onset and eventual eliminating costly disease and disability.  The cuts severely threaten U.S. global competitiveness and derail (perhaps forever) the careers of bright young scientists.

Your representatives in Congress may not appear to be interested in federally funded research. Few, in fact, are outspoken champions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the future of health; nor does it mean they don’t care what you, their constituent, think. No matter where your elected officials stand currently on the issues you care about, your voice is important to them. Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents — so explain to them why it’s crucial to fully fund the BRAIN Initiative. And tell your representatives in Congress that the NIH and the FDA and the CDC all need increased funding: A host of diseases await cures, better treatment and ultimately prevention. Is there, truly, a more important public priority than a healthy and prosperous citizenry? Share your story as a patient or caregiver or researcher. Let the people who represent you know that, while efforts to reduce the federal deficit are important, medical research will bring us closer to cures for Alzheimer’s disease, create jobs and drive economic growth. Research for health must be a top national priority. Ask your representatives to make the BRAIN Initiative their legacy issue.

From decades of commissioning public opinion polls that allow us to keep a finger on the pulse of public opinion, I know that Americans understand what’s at stake. More than half of those surveyed recently say they are willing to pay more in taxes if they were certain that all of the money would be spent on additional medical research. Imagine! In an era of nonstop criticism of how our tax dollars are spent, many Americans say they are willing to spend more on this priority. And then there is common sense — we don’t have to commission a poll to know that with both the costs and the number of people with dementia expected to double by 2040, we must act now to gain a deeper knowledge of the brain to prevent and treat neurological diseases. And to prevent more heartbreak.

It’s up to Congress — and it’s up to every one of us — to ensure the lofty goals of the BRAIN Initiative and other revolutionary and transformative research are fully realized with strong federal investment. Please speak out for cures, not cuts!

To learn more visit, www.researchamerica.org.

Mary Woolley is the president of Research!America, the nation’s largest nonprofit alliance working to make research for health a higher national priority. She is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine and serves on its Governing Council. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and serves on the National Academies Board on Life Sciences. She is a Founding Member of the Board of Associates of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. She is a sought-after speaker with a 30-year editorial and publication history on science advocacy and related topics. 

The views in guest essays are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the LEAD Coalition.