A $4.5 Billion Price Tag for the BRAIN Initiative?

The price of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN may have just skyrocketed. Last year, the White House unveiled a bold project to map the human brain in action, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, and commanded several federal agencies to quickly develop plans to make it reality. To kick-start the project, the president allocated about $100 million this year to BRAIN, spread over the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Now, after more than a year of meetings and deliberations, an NIH-convened working group has fleshed out some of the goals and aspirations of BRAIN and tried to offer a more realistic appraisal of the funding needed for the agency’s share of the project: $4.5 billion over the course of a decade.

Neuroscientist Cornelia Bargmann, of Rockefeller University in New York City, who led the working group, sought to put that cost in perspective at a press conference today, saying it amounted to “about one six-pack of beer for each American over the entire 12 years of the program.”

NIH, which provides $40 million of BRAIN’s current funding, doesn’t have a plan in place for where to get extra money called for in the new report, NIH Director Francis Collins told reporters. “It won’t be fast, it won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap,” he says. Regardless, Collins, who commissioned the new report to guide his agency’s role in the initiative, embraced the plan wholeheartedly:

The report lays out a 10- to 12-year plan for investing $300 million to $500 million per year to develop new tools to monitor and map brain activity and structure, beginning in fiscal year 2016. It suggests focusing on tool development for the first 5 to 6 years, then ramping up funding as new techniques come online. A key goal is to produce cheaper, more accessible tools that all researchers can use without needing special training, so that the overall cost of doing neuroscience research goes down over time, Bargmann says.

The panel acknowledges the uncertainty of their cost estimate. “While we did not conduct a detailed cost analysis, we considered the scope of the questions to be addressed by the initiative, and the cost of programs that have developed in related areas over recent years. Thus our budget estimates, while provisional, are informed by the costs of real neuroscience at this technological level,” the group writes.

The first round of requests for NIH grant applications already went out last fall, and awardees will be announced in September, according to Collins. Additional opportunities to apply for NIH funding will open up by fall, based on this new, more detailed report, he says. Researchers planning to apply “may now consider that [the report] is a blueprint of where we want to go,” Collins added.

*Correction, 10 June, 12:17 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect that the $4.5 billion proposed price tag for the BRAIN initiative refers only to NIH’s portion of the project, not all funding.