More on Patrick Kennedy’s Moon Shot Idea

First, I think this dovetails nicely with the entire Decade of the Mind Project as it was conceived at Krasnow, back in 2007. Congressman Kennedy was a tireless champion of neuroscience while he served in the House of Representatives and on the occasions that I met with him, I was incredibly impressed with his enthusiasm and integrity on this issue among many others.

Second, I worry that frankly, where the United States is politically right now, the notion of another US “owned” Moon Shot is not in the cards. Congress seems entirely deadlocked over the structure of the US budget on virtually every substantive component: revenue, entitlements, and discretionary spending. That ideological gridlock seems to be mirrored, both in the media and in the polity itself. At the same time, in my conversations with economists, the issue of the debt limit and its ramifications in terms of sovereign default are both unclear and potentially very consequential.

All of this, at a time when the US science R&D budgets are under incredible stress.

Much as I have been a champion of something like Decade of the Mind myself, I find myself increasingly engaged in the more proximal fight to both preserve and protect America’s on-going investments in science and education.

Any real progress towards a “Moon Shot” in the neurosciences will necessarily have to be international in nature. This is also true of large-scale physics projects such as the Large Hadron Collider as it is true of the International Space Station.

I would also argue, that the globalized private sector has a very important role to play–as it is now beginning to play in Space commercialization and exploration.

I’m impressed then with the notion of making mankind’s most significant scientific quests, universal–not the property of any one nation state, but rather the product of collective human endeavor.

Does the brain have a Von Neumann Architecture: DOM VI Update

Yesterday’s talks had an underlying debate about the very nature of the brain, namely does it have a Von Neumann architecture, has it evolved to compute or did it evolve to be something more of a Rube Goldberg machine? Pushing the latter view was Duke’s Dale Purves, the former position was taken by Rutger’s Randy Gallistel with Stanford’s Jay McClelland coming down somewhere in the middle.

Central to the debate was the question of whether there is a biological substrate for the required read/write addressable memory in the brain (in species ranging from ants to humans).

My own view is that the CA3 field of mammalian hippocampus at least offers the possibility of serving as the biological substrate as evidenced by its circuitry, the plasticity of its synapses and the possibility of mechanisms other than pure spike time dependent plasticity providing the ability to address specific synapses.

My former Mason colleague Maria Kozhevnikov (now at the National University of Singapore and Harvard Medical School) gave a wonderful talk on performance differences produced by immersing human subjects in immersed 3-D environments.

I had the honor of opening up DOM VI with an overview of the initiative.

Singapore Bling (Decade of the Mind VI)

I’m up at 4AM again. Jet lag for me goes away as a step function. I’m at a plateau right now. Up at 4 and really sleepy by around 9PM. Today (Sunday) we’ll dialog with some of the principals in combination a tour and dinner. We’re gathering in the late afternoon for a tour of the Peranakan Museum (the culture before the British got here–descendants of the Chinese and South-Asian communities that formed a hybrid culture) and then a festive dinner at a restaurant near by.
Yesterday I took in the full Orchard Road shopping experience. Imagine an eastern asian version of Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue rolled into a single massive tree-line boulevard. Or for those loyal readers from the Washington Area, Imagine malls like Tysons –except they are like the iceberg that the Titanic hit–the part above ground is dwarfed by what’s below the street level. At one of the most iconic of these shopping palaces (Ion) you’ll not only find access to the MRT (Singapore’s version of Metro) but also stores like Marks and Spencer, Burrberry and oddly enough for my Ann Arbor friends, a version of Borders Books that harkens back to the glory days.
And of course the food courts, which go on and on and forever and for which my colleague Tyler Cowen has provided much better reviews than I ever can (I believe his next book is on the economics of food!).
I ended up spending some money on some gifts; the Singapore dollars is right now at about .77 of the US dollar, so even though it’s absolutely not true, my neuroeconomic brain was making feel like the country was on-sale.
Our Hotel, Traders, is proximal to the leafy quiet neighborhood at the end of Orchard Road near the Botanical Gardens. It’s also quite near the U.S. Embassy (it looks impregnable by the way). So it’s not surprising really that the hotel is connected to a much smaller Mall which caters to the ex-pat scene. There is a clone of Whole Foods that was filled with people who could easily have been teleported from the one I usually go to in Clarendon. I have to say the prices, on average, were a bit better–although that could still be cognitive dissonance of using the Singapore dollar.
We’re near the equator. The last place this hot that I visited, Curacao, was also very near the equator. I suspect I mentioned that in a 2005 blog entry. So as I’m hearing about crisp Fall weather from the States, I’m a bit envious.
Tomorrow I’ll kick off the conference with an overview of the Decade of the Mind Project and where I hope it can go, both within the US and internationally. Then we’ll hear talks from Dale Purves, Randy Galistel and Maria Kozhevnikov. With luck (and wi-fi), I’ll be live blogging.

Blogging from Singapore

So I’m in Singapore a few days early, to get over the jet-lag (I’m a believer in Melatonin) and for some scientific meetings tomorrow. The Decade of the Mind Conference doesn’t begin until Sunday. In the meantime some observations: the non-stop from Newark to Singapore didn’t go over the Pole. Instead it took a route that led across the Atlantic, Northern Europe, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, The Bay of Bengal and on in to the Island State. We took the most interesting circuitous route across both Afghanistan and Pakistan with intricate direction turns–makes one think there might be some concerns about where commercial jets can safely go–or not. And there was some very exciting turbulence over the Indian Ocean as we got close. But all told, it was a great flight and definitely the fastest way to East Asia from the US east coast.

The food here–so far–is great. I had an amazing fish curry for breakfast.

Great news on the Chilean miners. We got the text messages of the successful rescue on the plane.

To DOM6 via the North Pole

I’ll be off to Decade of the Mind 6, which is in Singapore on Tuesday. To get there I’ll be taking the longest non-stop route in the world, Singapore Airlines Flight 21 from Newark over the Pole, Russia, China and down into South East Asia. No time over the Pacific. I’ll try to get some good blog posts out from the meeting. My colleague Tyler Cowen, gave me special coaching in the foodie department, so I’ll be ready.

Decade of the Mind IV, V and beyond

We returned to Washington on the red-eye from Long Beach Airport and arrived on Monday morning, in time for the festivities–although we didn’t brave the crowds on the Mall. I note that President Obama clearly mentioned science in his inaugural address–that and his high quality appointments make me very optimistic about this administration.

The money quote:

The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

The Decade of the Mind IV meeting went better than I could have ever expected–just a superb set of presentations, Q&A sessions and off-line discussions. The picture is of the New York Times’ science reporter George Johnson and Director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine Adrianne Noe. Dr. Noe is also the current chair of the Krasnow Advisory Board. I’m in the middle. The river in the background is the Rio Grande with the Sandia Mountains as the backdrop.

Decade of the Mind V, will be held in Berlin Germany on September 10-12 of this year. I’ll have more information soon, so stay tuned. And in the meantime, we’re working on future plans to keep the momentum moving into Asia.