Imagining imaging and supporting science

It’s a flawless Spring weekend here in Washington. I am sitting back in my living room thinking about two seemingly unrelated problems: what will be the next major advance in non-invasive human functional brain imaging and how to support academic science in an era of austerity.

The current gold standard in brain imaging, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has taken a remarkable number of hits recently, although most are related to analysis of the data and experimental design (For a good summary see Sleim and Roiser here). As importantly, what is measured, the BOLD signal, may correlate with synaptic activity in brain, but it’s most certainly physiologically removed–blood oxygen demand is, in fMRI,  a bio-proxy for chemical neurotransmission.

So the question is then, what comes next? What technology will replace BOLD and permit a more refined imaging of human brain function; one that matches the neural code better in both spatial and temporal resolution (for those excited by DT tractography, I would only point out that the wiring diagam is not dynamic like the active brain).

What comes next is very important to me because as an institute director, I invest scarce resources in the sort of expensive shared scientific infrastructure that comes with being able to non-invasively image human brain function. The trick is to avoid owning an expensive white elephant.

Which brings me to thoughts of money–where will the money come from to support American science if the academic-government social partnership of the last sixty years comes to an end (See Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier here)? One possibility is that progress in American science will come to a halt as it did in Russia for a while after the fall of the Soviet Union. Another possibility is that the political debate over this country’s financial difficulties will miraculously mature with the subsequent result of stable governmental support for scientific R&D continuing.

However, it also quite possible that in the current poisoned domestic political climate, science funding will fall off a cliff and that is a real worry. This worry is magnified by a recent paper (PDF) in the American Sociological Review by UNC’s Gordon Gauchat which analyzed trends in public trust of scientists. His results show a disturbing erosion of that trust among political conservatives. If the public doesn’t trust scientists, then it’s not a real stretch to see how congressional support for science R&D might be seriously damaged.

Which brings me to another possibility. Some multinational companies, such as Apple (see the Guardian piece here) are sitting on a huge amount of cash. Might there be a way to put that cash to work to increase public knowledge while at the same time increasing private return on investment?

Or to put it another way, might there be a new partnership in the works? One between academia and private enterprise? Such a partnership (on a large-scale) might truly energize the global economy and promote the sort of global positive outcomes which, until recent sovereign downgrades, had been the provence of governments, multilateral organizations and their coterie of NGO’s.


My colleague and friend Chris Hill (not the diplomat) has a new piece here. In it he posits the demise of an innovation society based primarily on science and technology. I think Chris is dead wrong, but it’s an interesting challenge for those of us who come from the Vannevar Bush tradition.

Money quote from Hill’s article:

Just as the post-industrial society continues to require the products of agriculture and manufacturing for its effective functioning, so too will the post-scientific society continue to require the results of advanced scientific and engineering research. Nevertheless, the leading edge of innovation in the post-scientific society, whether for business, industrial, consumer, or public purposes, will move from the workshop, the laboratory, and the office to the studio, the think tank, the atelier, and cyberspace.


How important is federal investment in science?

I’ve started many talks with remarks about FDR’s science advisor, Vennevar Bush, who in his report Science, The Endless Frontier, advocated forcefully for substantial federal investment in science R&D as a driver of the economy. In the present context of economic crisis, and in light of the Obama Administration’s very significant move towards funding science in the Recovery Act, now would be an excellent time to return to Bush’s thesis and attempt to generate data showing the relationship between federal investment in science and economic activity (as measured say by GDP). I’m particularly interested in whether it would be possible to tease out a causal relationship between the two–that is, does federal science R&D actually accelerate GDP growth and by what mechanism?

It seems to me that if a case could be made, one that uses recent data and that demonstrates some causality, that would be an extraordinarily powerful argument to bring before the US general public and their elected officials. It would also strongly buttress the new Administration’s policy moves to put science front and center of their agenda.
Who would fund such research? And how important would it really be?