An open letter to Larry Swanson: Why it is important for neuroscientists to debate the Brain Initiative in public

Sebastian Seung and Anthony Movshon engage in a public debate about the connectome

Dear Larry Swanson,

I’m writing in response to your letter to SfN members regarding the Brain Initiative, primarily because I strongly disagree with one of your key points. In the letter, you write:

While we should all continue to explore and discuss questions about the scientific direction, it is important that our community be perceived as positive about the incredible opportunity represented in the President’s announcement. If we are perceived as unreasonably negative or critical about initial details, we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started.


SfN encourages healthy debate and rigorous dialogue about the effort’s scientific directions. Testing of assumptions, methodological debate, and constructive competition are central to scientific progress. I urge you to bring all this to the table through our scientific communications channels and venues, including the SfN annual meeting in San Diego this fall and The Journal of Neuroscience.

(my own emphasis added)

To summarize your request, you think that we should disagree only in “our scientific communications channels” while ensuring that, to the taxpayers who will be funding this initiative, “our community be perceived as positive” about it. Not only do I find it offensive and patronizing that you would ask us to be disingenuous to the very public which supports our efforts, but I think that your request is short-sighted and undermines the work of neuroscientists who seek to cultivate a public that is informed and literate in matters of the brain.

The debate has already begun in the public sphere, whether you like it or not. And the public is looking to neuroscientists to make sense of the vague official announcements that have happened thus far. Will we actually fix Alzheimer’s in five years? Will we record from every neuron in the human brain? Why do we want to do this? Without our informed input to the debate, “we risk smothering the initiative before it gets started” due to bad reporting. While you ask us to stick to “our” channels of scientific discourse, like the paywalled journals and exclusive conferences that the public cannot access, it was only 4 days after the New York Times story broke that this gem of fear-mongering claimed that the Brain Initiative would allow Barack Obama to read people’s minds. If we don’t talk about the Brain Initiative, bad reporters will. And if bad reporters talk about the Brain Initiative, we risk creating a public which is fearful of the very work that we do.

That is, while pieces like those by Partha Mitra, Scicurious and other neuroscientist bloggers may not have portrayed a community of neuroscientists that are 100% united behind this initiative, they serve a much greater purpose. As you noted, we are “capturing the world’s attention” and this affords us an “unparalleled” opportunity to educate the public about the actual work that neuroscientists do, the opportunities and the limitations. This type of discourse is critically needed in the public sphere to improve neuroscience literacy, fight bunk neuroscience reporting, and in the long run cultivate a public that is excited, engaged, and ready to fund neuroscience.

Further, most of the debate among neuroscientists on Twitter, Quora, and blogs concerns where the money for this initiative will be coming from and whether it will cut into existing (and already strained) research budgets. I think that we are entirely valid in being concerned that other good neuroscience will be “smothered” by the Brain Initiative, precisely due to the “growing challenges caused by shrinking or flat national government budgets for science research.” And again, putting this debate in the public sphere allows neuroscientists to inform the public on the opportunities and limitations of different experimental approaches, and the importance of investing in basic research for long term health outcomes.

Ultimately, I believe that we should not wait until SfN in November to debate this and that we should not isolate the debate from the public that supports us by locking it off on the pages of “our” journals that are inaccessible to said public. Rather, having this debate in the open will ensure a public that supports and trusts our work for decades to come.

Thank you,

Justin Kiggins


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  • EMoonTX

    Speaking as a taxpayer and a citizen with some years of interest in neuroscience (but no degrees in that field) I completely agree. There are anti-science elements in our culture who will treat lack of openness with their usual conspiracy theory approach…already at work on this. Yes, they will quote and misquote scientists expressing cautions or doubts about the Brain Initiative, but they’ll do the same with anyone they can find…and will then treat apparent solidarity among scientists as proof of the conspiracy to hide something diabolical from the public.

    Be open. Conduct the open discussions professionally, certainly–stick to the issues, the known facts, the concerns about competing funding. Demonstrate the kind of clear, rational, critical thinking skills you would like the public to use. But be open above all. Doing so will appeal to, and reassure, the intelligent and educated among the non-specialists, who then become your “points of light” in the larger number of those who think neurology has something to do with neuritis but they aren’t sure what.

  • Odyssey

    Exactly. By the time SfN rolls around much of the debate will be done. If yo care about this, now is the time to engage. And with everyone, not just other neuroscientists.

  • Justin K

    Thanks EMoonTX. I think you are spot on. One of my biggest fears for the field is that if we only debate these things behind closed doors, we will become the next Climate Science.

  • Namnezia

    Nicely put. I think maybe the rationale for the letter was to avoid something like what happened when climate researchers emails were used as “evidence” about large disagreements about climate change among scientists, ignoring the fact that debate is a normal part of developing consensus, and that this is an ongoing process incorporating new evidence and refining such consensus. So just because neuroscientists have varying views on BrainI it doesn’t mean the field is divided or think that it is a waste of $$ and effort.

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