BAM!). Even though no details have yet been announced, already it is being blasted by people who know about the project and have the brains to see through its flimsy rationales (e.g., here). And, it's interesting that so many geneticists, who of course benefitted themselves from their own Big Science decade+, are coming out against it. Not surprisingly, as it will steer funding to something else.
These projects do have some scientific questions, and identify areas of our limited knowledge. But these are nearly after-thoughts--first, let's look at everything that technology can find without having to think seriously about why we're doing it first (i.e., to have to state some useful hypotheses). And second, they seem to be transparent strategies for being bad rather than good citizens: NIH, and its PT Barnum leader Francis Collins, lays this Big One at Obama's feet just when it comes time to think about budget cuts. And the EU has, even in times of austerity, ponied up a half-billion Euros, for its own version of the Brain Drain (The Human Brain Project) -- is this a case of the US not wanting to be left behind? If the President says we can't do this all the way, then will he feel pressured to temper other cuts? This or something like must be what's in the lobbyists for Big Science's minds.
There is waste aplenty, crises in science research and publishing, and the like. But the very well organized university-science-industry welfare system knows how to propose projects easy to brag about and hard to turn down, to make sure the cuts happen on somebody else's lawn. Proposing huge new projects of the 'omics' (do everything all at once without real ideas) in the face of a budget crisis is basically to sneer at the public good, a science arrogance, which has all the earmarks of a cynical disregard for society at large and a shallowly selfish form of guild-protection. Or is this too cynical a view on our part?
No proposed project is entirely worthless, even 'mapping' the human brain. But the mind-set or strategem to co-opt research funding by going for Big Science is destructive to science itself, making safe, incremental, essentially thought-light (hypotheses need not apply) progress, and restricted to a set of investigators who have to toe the line as components of the bigger project. These are becoming more and more top-down, NIH-administrated mega-groups, rather than independently initiated projects (known as RO1 applications) and the same is likely happening in other funding agencies.
Investigators bemoan the reduction in RO1 funds, and the flood of applications, but investigators desperate for funds when the chance per application is slow churn out applications, and most of them are safe, incremental projects following fads that seem fundable. Investigators submit many applications a year, and who can blame them? Unless there is some real squeeze that forces the system to fund what is really inovative or addresses real problems, which is not the tenor of our Big Science times, making more money available for RO1's would be good, but won't solve the problems.
There is now a long track record to show that what we say is not so wrong-headed. Yes, even after you filter out the hurricane of hyperbole, most projects find things and, yes, there are improvements in knowledge or even occasionally in medical care. Some of them are quite important. But that's not the same as being worth it, or yielding a greater payback compared to more focused studies on more clearly soluble problems would have been.
The rat-race this is imposing on the academic research system and the hungry dependence of universities on external grants, are destructive of jobs, job security, morale, and of science progress and innovation itself.
This does raise a countervailing problem, however. We already have an excess of people with advanced degrees who can't get jobs, or the kind of jobs they've trained for. This is separate from the debate about whether there is a shortage of adequately trained technical science and engineering graduates and whether K-12 and research-obsessed universities are dropping the training ball. We recruit too many graduate students, largely to do our research for us, or help us teach, so we can keep getting those grants that often don't produce that much, and then the grad students find that there aren't the needed real jobs out there afterwards. The abuse of the system is worse in professional schools than in real universities with students, because professional schools (medical, public health, etc.) pay little of their faculty's salary and can't live on the tuition of their relatively small student body. This is not their fault so much as the fault of the system we've allowed to be built.
Thus, cutting research funding to eliminate minimally useful or wasteful projects--reducing the Brain Drain--will force a cut-back in our convenient but excess scientific labor pool, as Karl Marx might have referred to it. Faculty and staff will lose jobs, as will those who make and distribute the materials labs use, advertise it, publish research journals, and the like. So, budget adjustment rather than just cuts is what we really need.
We all want things that we do to continue. We build interest groups, settle into comfortable existence, and fight threats to the status quo. All of this is only natural. But why should scientists or bureaucrats have an easier job-finding time than people in 'lower' walks of life? The proper and humane attitude is for the granting agencies to be public-spirited and volunteer cuts--real cuts--in the research budget, but cuts that are phased and tied to reforms that will continue to provide more secure, if more modest, funding to more (especially younger) investigators, to take the chance that this more diverse, more focused rather than grandiose omics-scale, a less frenzied science ecosystem will produce greater, better fruit than it's been doing.
And our nation would then not need to suffer the impending Brain Drain.