Eisenhower’s Ghost and Obama’s Brain

While sifting through the coverage of President Obama’s BRAIN announcement yesterday  – video of Obama here; transcript of his remarks here; White House fact sheet here; White House blog here; White House Youtube video here – I found myself rather wistfully remembering a President who preceded him.

I’m talking, of course, about this guy:

In an act of supreme moral courage, apparently forgotten at (and therefore justified by) yesterday’s event, Eisenhower warned – in his final speech to the nation in 1961 – that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” (minute 1:50 of the video above).

But as the historian Douglas Brinkley has pointed out about that stinging phrase, it was almost harsher. Eisenhower originally put a third word in there, calling it the military-industrial-scientific complex. He was talked out of it by James Killian, the first Presidential Science Advisor and later the President of MIT. Thanks to Killian science thereby retained its undeserved reputation for staying above the militaristic-capitalistic fray.

Eisenhower’s ghost was nowhere to be found yesterday. And that’s a pity.  If Eisenhower’s discarded phrase had been on the tips of more science reporters’ tongues – scratch that, on any science reporter’s tongue – you might have heard some well-deserved hard questions being asked. Because it turns out that DARPA – the government agency that gave us Reagan’s Falcon project and Star Wars (or, if you’re into making it sound benign, GPS and the internet), and which last year funded defense contractors like Lockheed Martin (whose website promotes attack fighters) and Booz Allen (whose website promotes something called cyber4sight, a kind of precrime technology) – is coughing up $50 million for Obama’s BRAIN. Which is more than any other funder.

And this puts a whole new spin on the vagueness and open-ended nature of the proposal, which Obama incorrectly analogized to the Apollo or human genome projects. After all, the elevator pitch for the Apollo project was one sentence long: “we want to put a man on the moon.” The elevator pitch for the Human Genome Project was too: “we want to sequence the human genome.” Hell, so was the pitch for Google, funded by the NSF: “we want to search the internet.”  Not so the BRAIN project. It doesn’t have a clear goal or methodology – which is why when Obama started listing things that might come out of it he sounded like a 5-year old on Santa’s lap. He wanted everything – to cure dementia and schizophrenia and stroke –  because he didn’t really want anything in particular.

Now at a first pass – and hopefully at a last pass – there’s something wonderful about our society plunking down big bucks on neuroscience, hopeful and confident it will yield a good return, God knows how. But there is another angle – however small – that wasn’t explored in the coverage yesterday.  And that’s that it is possible – just possible – that Eisenhower’s old creation, DARPA, might have a vested interest in keeping its promises vague. Maybe it has plans for neuroscience it would rather keep hidden?

Which raises this perfectly appropriate question: what is DARPA expecting for its money? But yesterday nobody was asking this. Take this pathetically neutered mention of DARPA by the paper of record, the New York Times, which couldn’t have been written better if its authors wanted to steer readers away from this question:

Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the N.I.H., described by the officials as a “dream team,” and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.

The paragraph does a good job of dampening reader interest in the DARPA angle. First it blandly sets the reader up to think of NIH and NSF and DARPA as “government agencies,” which is a bit like calling Hellen Mirren, Jodi Foster and Lindsay Lohan “actresses.” Then it wedges DARPA between the unimpeachable NIH and NSF – rather like seating Lindsay between Hellen and Jodi at a dinner party, as though to make her look good by association. Then rather than use DARPA’s well known acronym – which might have raised a few eyebrows – the Times spells it out. Finally, rather than raise any questions about why DARPA would want to throw $50 million (with more to come) at the brain, the Times leaves the funding question behind entirely and pivots with the phrase “dream team.” Of course  Barkley, Malone, Johnson, Ewing and Jordan were clear about what they were up to: winning the Gold. This dream team claims not to know what they will be doing with the money.

So what’s the conspiracy take on this? How about this: DARPA is planning military uses for neuroscience (see below for supporting circumstantial evidence), but wants to divert people who might be concerned about this from the get go. If that’s true, by falling down on the job and acting like DARPA funding neuroscience is no different than NIH funding neuroscience (which is like saying the Pentagon funding rocket research is no different than NASA funding rocket research), the Times helped smooth the way.  

In this the Times was not alone.

Here’s Wired:

the White House hopes to launch the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative next year with money from the National Institutes of Health, Darpa and the National Science Foundation. Private foundations, including the Allen Brain Institute for Brain Science and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will kick in tens of millions more.

Did you catch that cute little Darpa?  Uncapitalized? That was all the major funder got.

Then there’s The Washington Post, which allows that DARPA is part of the Pentagon, but alludes not to its various weapons programs, but rather to the invention of the internet:

Much of the proposed federal money, about $40 million, would pass through the National Institutes of Health over the coming fiscal year. At the same time, four nonprofit foundations have committed their own money to be partners in the program: the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. An additional $50 million would be allocated to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon department that pioneered the Internet.

Mmmm-hmmmm. Pioneered the internet, and also technologies that give America its military superiority. Ah, we’re short on space – just go with the internet one.

And then here’s MSNBC, showing DARPA with the biggest share of government funding – more than NIH! More than NSA! – but then not making anything of it:

As outlined by the White House, the BRAIN initiative will be funded through three federal agencies―the National Institutes of Health ($40 million), the National Science Foundation ($20 million) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ($50 million).

The closest I found to anything implying that DARPA might want something for all its money was on Mashable. At least they admitted the work was going to circle back to the military and help our soldiers. But they made it sound like it was going to help them after they got shot up in a conventional war.

DARPA, the Department of Defense’s advanced research wing, is particularly interested in technology which could help doctors treat post-traumatic stress, brain injury, and memory loss — all of which can take a toll on soldiers’ health.

In short, what is no doubt the party line –  DARPA as nurse, not DARPA as warrior. 

Shockingly, the most thoughtful and honest treatment of DARPA’s intentions was by…. DARPA itself. Here’s their press release, which acknowledges in a roundabout way that military funding of neuroscience brings up ethical issues. But wait a minute – shouldn’t the press be asking these questions before DARPA starts answering them? And isn’t a bit of skepticism about those answers in order?

There’s plenty of cause for concern, and no reason to think the NYT et al couldn’t have mustered it up in a half hour of toodling around on the internet. Why wait for some shrink to finish his day job?  For example, consider this article in The Atlantic in 2011 by Adam Estes Clarke on DARPA’s interest in neuro-military integration; or that Wired in 2010 said this: “Air Force Wants Neuroweapons to Overwhelm Enemy Minds.” Or that in The Guardian there’s a recent piece – “Neuroscience could mean soldiers controlling weapons with minds” – on the movement of large militaries towards neuroweaponry. Or that that article was  triggered by an alarming report on the risks of the military-neuroscience nexus by no less venerable an institution than Britain’s Royal Society, which summarizes their report as follows:

Neuroscience is a rapidly advancing field… [that] suggests a number of potential military and law enforcement applications.These applications tend to serve one of two main goals. Performance enhancing applications seek to improve the efficiency of one’s own forces – for example by optimising recruitment, training and operational performance or improving treatments for rehabilitation. Performance degrading applications seek to diminish the performance of one’s enemy – for example through the development of weapons such as incapacitating chemicals. The report considers some of the key advances in neuroscience, including neuropharmacology, functional neuroimaging and neural interface systems, which could impact upon these developments and the policy implications for the international community, the UK government and the scientific community.

So here’s the question. If the Royal Society can get worried about DARPA, why can’t the New York TimesThe Brits haven’t dropped the ball on this; but we have.

Summarizing the Royal Society’s concerns, The Guardian writes:

The authors argue that while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.

To which we must add, apparently, so does the American science press.

Now look, I’m as excited about the brain as anyone. Maybe moreso. Look – here’s the government record of my own $800,000 NIMH grant to prove my bonafides. I’m looking forward to reading and writing and thinking about the research that comes out of BRAIN over the coming decades, and watching many of my friends get funding through this program.  But I also know that the Royal Society – and Eisenhower – were onto something.

It’s tricky to mix military funding with scientific funding, as though those two groups share a single common goal.  They don’t. Science is essentially amoral: it wants to sketch out mechanisms, using empirical methods, and turns moral considerations over to those who use its technologies. The military is, alterantely, moral. Not objectively “good” but moral in the sense that it pursues a moral agenda. In the case of America’s military, this agenda is quite particular: to help America respond to – and through the Bush Doctrine through preventive war head off – existential threats.  Well, those are not the same thing, and allowing the moral agenda to infect the science from the get go raises serious concerns about the directions in which researchers may be incentivized to turn in their quest not just for knowledge, but funding.

So let me just put it out there. Isn’t it prudent to assume that DARPA is funding neuroscience research because (among other things) it wants to make American soldiers more effective killers, or at least winners? Isn’t military superiority the fundamental goal of every Pentagon program?  Isn’t DARPA likely to follow these goals? That DARPA is the lead funder of a neuroscience initiative with unclear aims and an open timeframe may be nothing to worry about. But it could – could – be the first sign that we’re looking at exactly what Eisenhower decided to spend his last speech to the nation warning us to watch out for.

And isn’t it the job of the press to remember him, and catch onto this?

Listen to how Eisenhower closed his remarks in 1961:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

If that’s not convincing enough for our reporters – or if it’s too much – shouldn’t the manic tweeting of Obama’s arch-enemy Eric Cantor in favor of the BRAIN initiative have gotten their attention? I mean, this guy’s an absolute jerk. So what was he so excited about? If you don’t think that underneath it all Cantor didn’t grow up with – like all of us – a soft spot for the most famous military cyborg in our popular culture – I’m talking about this guy….

Screen Shot 2013-04-02 at 11.44.17 PM

…… and if you don’t think there aren’t a few neocons just like him salivating at the thought of future fleets of American neurosoldiers cutting through the Mongol hordes, you haven’t been watching enough House of Cards. DARPA’s got skin – big skin – in this game for a reason. Visions of neuroweaponry are dancing through at least some of their heads.  Isn’t it time to ask some questions about it?

America’s just flubbed two wars, at incredible expense, in which overconfidence in DARPA weaponry played a huge role. Let’s find out exactly what their thinking about the BRAIN initiative is, and how this military-scientific collaboration is supposed to play out. And let’s hope that we don’t have a new challenge on our hands – to keep not only weapons out of the wrong hands, but the wrong heads. And let’s follow their mission statement and funding patterns closely over the years. NYT, what do you say? Want to give cynicism a shot? I’ve heard it’s something that reporters – and even Presidents – used to do.

Image credits: http://images.sodahead.com/polls/002137293/5324643385_vader_fight_bw_cheney_xlarge.jpeg

and http://compthink.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/cyborg.jpg

5/22/13 – minor edits.


  1. i have to agree with you, everyone is so excited, but I can’t help thinking that we have a predisposition for throwing ourselves like lemmings into things we don’t fully comprehend. Asking questions is not really encouraged, currently british education is under the influence of poeple who would rather our children simplified education to learning by wrote and ticking boxes. Elite education is very much a reality and you get what you pay for. In relation to neuroscience and research, lest we forget ‘The Borg’ from star trek next generation? (obviously the big guy from star wars is a stark reminder). I would like to think that we will be using this science to better mankind, and already some people Richard J Davidson may be one of them, some people are. But in the hands of governments we should be asking questions about the motivation behind this. Additionaly looking at what the competition are getting up to (see the china brain project google). Could it be there is more than a little bit of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s ‘ behind this move? After all the men who stare at goat’s research was motivated by the competition between competing cold war continents, so to think that they aren’t trying to out do each other would be a bit naive. I love your blog, just found it! am off to look through the rest!

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