Tuesday, April 01, 2008

(April fools update) Leveling the playing field – NIH to ban brain enhancing practices

Update - This post was part of an April 1st news but I am sure everyone got it :). Still the pressure in science is real and worth thinking about.

There has been quite a buildup of discussion surrounding the idea of brain enhancing drugs in the last couple of days. It started early march with a New York Time piece “Brain Enhancement Is Wrong, Right?” and it has culminated with the recent announcement of the World Anti Brain Doping Authority (WABDA) a joint effort from the NIH and EU to initiates studies on the reach of brain enhancing practices in science today.
There are many points of view already expressed on the web, see for example: ·Chris Patil
·Anna Kushnir
·Genome Technology
·Eye on DNA
·Bob Ohara
·Martin Fenner

My first reaction was of pure skepticism, this must be some kind of joke I thought, so I tried to probe a little bit around the UCSF campus to see if anyone has ever heard of this as well. One of my supervisors mentioned that about a year ago he had to fill out a NIH survey addressing the current problem of very high rejection rates for NIH grants. It looks like within this survey there was a section regarding the problems of competition in science and some of these brushed around the topic of brain enhancing practices. It could be that at the time NIH was trying to measure how far would people go under an extreme competitive environment.
This really got me thinking about how we are engaged in an environment that is not that far removed from highly competitive sports. How many stories have we heard about data forgery and scandalous retractions in the last couple of years? To what extent will people go to secure their place in science? To be recognized?
So maybe NIH is right in being proactive. Even if the issue is not as serious in science as it is in sports, unless there is an amazing influx of money or a considerable decrease of working scientists this might become an important problem. If nothing else we will get to know the current extent of these practices and it highlights yet again how far we deviated from course. The money society puts into scientific research is being wasted on overlapping competitive projects. Research agendas should be open and free for anyone to participate in. Maybe NIH should regulate that as well.