Why should we invest in basic brain science?

I’ve been approached for comment on an in-press paper. Among the questions posed to me was this one:

How does this kind of research benefit society? Why do we need to understand the neuroscience behind perception, learning, and social interaction? Why should we continue to invest in this kind of research?

Good questions. In conversation, I tend to dodge these by saying “it’s just interesting”. I haven’t had to write many grant proposals so far. A little elaboration on “it’s just interesting” seemed appropriate here. All I could come up with was this:

This is basic science. It benefits a society that values knowledge and is interested in finding out how the human mind and brain work. It is also imaginable that one day this research, along with hundreds or thousands of other studies, will help us make progress in the treatment of brain disorders. However, this is speculative at present. Many important advances of technology and medicine are based on basic science. Insight is often useful. But to gain it we must pursue it for its own sake, rather than with a need to justify every step toward it by an application.

I wish I had a better answer. Any suggestions?



2 thoughts on “Why should we invest in basic brain science?”

  1. A description of cortical representations, together with the algorithms that form them, implies what kind of biases are typically there in human cognition, or in what tasks are humans good or bad and why (of course, first on the level of simple sensory tasks). This is hugely important regarding how we look at human decision making and communication.

  2. Totally agree we should have a strong answer on this. I often start lectures on neuroscience with a ‘knowledge is power’ pitch, that fundamental neuroscience can have profound implications that we cannot know in advance of doing the research. I like using Adrian Owen’s work with coma patients as an example. There is no way that would have happened without decades of fundamental research coming first.

    Mariana Mazzucato has a great talk about the role of the government in investing in research which leads to real innovation and change. But it is mainly focused on the physical sciences.

    I’m also not aware of a good article/talk that makes this case for neuroscience…

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