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The Government’s New BRAIN Initiative: The Next Manhattan Project?

Apr 21, 2013

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This month, President Obama announced the bold new BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which challenges scientists to map the organ to better understand how we think, learn, and remember. The program brings to mind similarly historic R&D programs with the ambitious goal of taking on mankind’s biggest challenges. While there are pros and cons to the Big Science concept, particularly in a time of budget belt-tightening, it’s hard not be inspired by the audacious vision and the tremendous scale of these types of undertakings. Here’s how the BRAIN Initiative will fit into our our picks for the government’s most ambitious Big Science initiatives, all of which changed the course of history.

The Manhattan Project (1942–1947)

Goal: To develop and build an atomic bomb (in response to enemy threats)


  • Solve a large-scale engineering problem, based on largely untested theories.
  • Take laboratory research into design, construction, operation, and product delivery with great speed and secrecy.

Estimated Costs: About $2.2 billion over five years (which equates to $26 billion in 2013 dollars).

Key Players: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with support from the U.K. and Canada

Benefits (according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy):

  • At its peak, the project employed 130,000 workers.
  • It not only helped bring an end to the Second World War, but ushered in the atomic age.


  • As described by Stanford University Professor Timothy Lenoir and Marguerite Hays, “The Manhattan Project was the technological incubator for important Cold War electronics, computer science, military, and aerospace technologies.”
  • The U.S. Dept. of Energy cites the Manhattan Project as the organizational model behind the remarkable achievements of American "big science" during the second half of the 20th century.

The Apollo “Moon Shot” Project (1961–1973)

Goal: Land a man on the moon and safely return him to Earth within a decade.


Estimated Costs: Nearly $20.4 billion from 1959 to 1973. A 2009 NASA Symposium estimated about $170 billion (in 2005 dollars).

Key Players: NASA plus various industry and university contractors


  • NASA estimates showed that for every dollar spent on the Apollo program, the nation received $9 in benefits from new technologies.
  • Employed more than 34,000 NASA workers and 375,000 employees of contractors.
  • Led to great progress in rocketry and aeronautics, and civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.


Human Genome Project (1990–2003)

Goal: Map all the genes in human DNA (identify all possible sequences, create a database).

Challenge: The scale of the project. There are 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA, made up of about 3 billion chemical base pairs (DNA building blocks).

Estimated Cost: $3.8 billion (about $300 million per year for about a decade)

Key Players: U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Wellcome Trust (U.K.), and scientists from 20 centers in six countries.


  • The results of the Human Genome Project have allowed researchers to understand the blueprint for human life. For example, scientists have pinpointed a number of genes tied to common diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
  • Knowledge of the variation of DNA and its effects can revolutionize the way doctors diagnose, treat and even prevent a number of diseases.
  • As researchers learn more about the functions of genes and proteins, this knowledge will have a major impact in the fields of medicine, biotechnology, and the life sciences.
  • The White House reports economic output of approximately $796 billion (about $141 for ever dollar invested).


  • The project is described by the NIH as biology's equivalent to "the moon shot."
  • While the list of examples where genomic analyses are providing answers or new therapeutic approaches to vexing clinical problems is growing, much basic research remains to be done to ensure a productive implementation of genomics for clinical care.

BRAIN Initiative (2013–2023)

Goal: Give scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain and better understand how we think, learn, and remember.

Challenge: According to Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch:

  • The brain is arguably the most complex structure in the known universe.
  • It consists of an estimated 125 trillion synapses, or the number of stars in 1,500 Milky Way galaxies.
  • The brain itself has a storage capacity of roughly 2.5 petabyes (a million gigabytes), or roughly 3 million hours of recorded TV. 

As reported by Chris Burns at Slashgear:

  • The BRAIN Initiative will necessitate stimulation and recording of an unprecedented number of neurons, requiring real-time data processing.
  • Estimated Cost: $100 million initially from the U.S. government, plus approximately $968 million from private-sector partners over a decade.

Key Agencies:

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)

Key Partners:

Potential Benefits:

  • New ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.
  • Paves the way for advances in artificial intelligence.

Possible Legacy:

  • Unprecedented cross-disciplinary scientific work in the nanoscience and neuroscience communities.
  •  Per New York Times reporter John Markoff, it aims to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics, with the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind.
  • In the launch press conference, President Obama concluded, “We have the chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet.”


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