Making Connections

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Recently, I’ve been interested in the announced plans to have a major federally-funded initiative to map the “active brain” (otherwise known as the Brain Activity Map or BAM Project). I’ve been especially intrigued about points of contact and comparison between the BAM project and other recent big-technoscience efforts like the Apollo program and the Human Genome Project. With regards to the BAM Project, one advocate states “We are trying to learn from the Human Genome Project, the mistakes they made.”1

With that in mind, this recent article in Nature caught my eye. It gives a behind the scenes view of the “brain-mapping moon shot” (Nature’s title kindly made the link between two techno-programs for me here) by focusing on the role of Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).2

According to Nature, the idea for the BAM project originated in September 2011 at a meeting in the UK that Miyoung Chun, a vice-president of science programs at the Kavli Foundation, helped convene. Chun and Kalil had already been in touch about a big neuro-focused project. Kalil and other OSTP officials encouraged Chun and her colleagues to “think bigger” which helped lead to the BAM Project’s ambitious goals to map the active brains of various organisms including, perhaps one day, us humans. It certainly opens up interesting questions about the nature of the mind.

(It also led to speculations by a few folks that this might be the Obama administration’s first steps toward mind control…but let’s leave that nugget pass us by just for now…)

But what caught my attention most about Kalil’s role in helping spur the BAM Project was that this was not the first large scale federal technology initiative he helped midwife. In the late 1990s, officials from the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies met with Kalil to discuss a possible national initiative in nanotechnology. Kalil had previously worked as a trade specialist for Dewey Ballantine, a now-defunct “white shoe” law firm that counted the semiconductor industry among its clients. Kalil (he majored in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where his father is – yes – a neuroscientist) understood the needs of companies connected with information technologies and their interest in future technologies.  After moving to his White House post, one of major initiatives he worked on was the Next Generation Internet which aimed to improve business and citizen access to information technologies.Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 3.20.05 PM

Kalil recognized that nanotechnology, like the Internet, could create jobs and benefit the overall U.S. economy.3  Kalil also knew that funding for biomedical research had soared throughout the 1990s while support for research in the physical sciences had stagnated. A national nanotechnology program presented an opportunity to redirect money into areas of research that were less well-funded. Finally, Kalil, whose college degree was in political science, saw nanotechnology as the “first critical technology after World War Two where the United States did not start out with a clear advantage.” Global leadership in nanotechnology, he told me in 2006, “was up for grabs.” As Roco’s plans began to take shape, Kalil solicited letters of support from semiconductor manufacturers, the only major industry group that lobbied directly for the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

As speechwriters worked on President Clinton’s final State of the Union address in 2000, for example, Kalil recalled they kept removing references to nanotechnology but the president kept reinserting it. On 21 January 2000, President Clinton gave a major speech on federal technology policy at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. What would happen, Clinton asked, if “we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?” Consider the possibilities, he said, of “materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a fraction of the weight” or “shrinking all the information at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube.” Similar imagery appeared in his State of the Union address a week later. To make these and other technologies happen, Clinton asked Congress for $3 billion dollars that would help build a path to “the next industrial revolution.”4 This opened the door to what now amount to about an $18 billion national nano program.

At the end of the Nature article, Ron Kalil reflected on what his son told him he did at OSTP. “His answer was simple: ‘I’m the make-it-happen guy.’” Twice, Tom Kalil helped shepherd large government technology initiatives into existence. He’s apparently trying for the hat trick.

As a historian of science and technology, what’s really interesting to me are the connections between things like the Apollo program, the Human Genome Project, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the Next Generation Internet, and now the Brain Activity Mapping Project. This isn’t just the personal connections exemplified and fostered by people like Kalil. I’m also quite curious and intrigued by the larger linkages between these massive federal initiatives. How do they build on one another or use past experiences as templates for future action? Is there a typology of such initiatives? Do they foster that much sought after yet barely graspable grail of interdisciplinarity? What can we see about the private-public interactions inherent in such efforts? And – perhaps most germane to the topic – do these efforts establish “neural pathways” between various government agencies and the mid-level science managers who work there that leads to new projects and bigger dreams?

Just so long as I don’t need to wear an aluminum hat to keep my dreams from being read…

  1. Statement in the Nature piece by Rafael Yuste, a biologist at Columbia University in New York and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science. []
  2. Disclaimer: I know Kalil somewhat…I interviewed him years ago for a research project and he served on the national advisory board of UCSB’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society which I’m involved with. []
  3. The NSF’s Mike Roco, for instance, frequently cited studies suggesting nanotechnology could be a $1 trillion annual market, the realization of which would require some “2 million nanotechnology workers.” From M.C. Roco. “Government Nanotechnology Funding: An International Outlook.” JOM, September 2002: 22-23. []
  4. William J. Clinton; January 21, 2000 speech; John Markoff. “A Clinton Initiative in a Science of Smallness.” New York Times, January 21, 2000, 2000, C5. []

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