The Hidden Value of ‘Big Science’

Having been involved in ‘Big Science’, I think one of the things that typically goes unmentioned, but which might be the most important thing to come out of these kinds of projects is the breakthrough and improvement in technology and analytical methods. That why this strikes me as the right way to look at the Brain Activity Map (‘BAM’):

“If the BAM gets funding, there will be exciting advances – but it will take years, if not decades, to move those technologies forward in the way that their advocates are dreaming about,” Van Essen says. He also points out, however, that a similar revolution took place in genomics research during the 1990s. “To make sense of those data,” he says, “new analysis methods needed to be invented; and what emerged was a world of bioinformatics. Even the smartest investigators didn’t know what we were getting into when we set out to decipher the human genome, so they had to bootstrap themselves into a realm of generating more and more powerful analysis and computational tools.”

Van Essen says he hopes, in his more optimistic moments, that we’ll eventually see a similar revolution in neuroinformatics and computational neuroscience: A revolution whose new approaches and technologies will combine micro-scale and macro-scale models of brain function. Such models could enable us not only to handle, store and visualize neurbioological data sets, but also to generate new tools for exploring and interpreting the complex circuitry of the human brain.

Thinking about the microbiome, to me, the real strides weren’t the data, although they are interesting, but that this project enabled serious methods development and also pointed out the shortcomings in interpreting those data. Since it appears the BAM is going to happen, hopefully these breakthroughs will happen here too.

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2 Responses to The Hidden Value of ‘Big Science’

  1. kaleberg says:

    I had my doubts when they proposed the human genome project. It struck me as a bit of a boondoggle, but then I realized that sequencing the genome was really just a side effect of the effort. The real goal was to develop technology which would make sequencing a human genome something any lab could afford, then any hobbyist could afford, and then any ambitious high school student could afford. It was like computing. They made all sorts of excuses about why the government, our military, our society, blah blah blah, needed high speed computers, but what we really wanted were great video games, CGI movies, youtube videos, WiFi password crackers and the like; we just didn’t know it.

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