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Zhu Yanmei: Thoughts on the BRAIN Initiative
Update:Aug 27th, 2013

What does the Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative (the BRAIN initiative) look like? Is it comparable to the Human Genome Project (HGP)? What are the differences between it and the Human Brain Project (HBP) initiated by the European Union? With these questions in mind, the author recently interviewed scientists involved in it.

At early April, the Obama administration announced the BRAIN Initiative, also referred to as the Brain Activity Map Project (BAM), which would greatly expand people’s knowledge regarding the health and diseases of human brain. With the estimated 3-billion investment in the first 10 years, the BAM Project is nothing short of another HGP. Obama, when delivering the State of the Union address at the beginning of 2013, said that the project would heave science to a new level “not seen since the height of the Space Race”. Additionally, it may also help Obama to be better remembered in history because the acronym of the project is coincidentally the three letters well in the middle of his name.

The U.S. has already benefited a great deal from megascience projects. December 19th, 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the completion of Project Apolo and everyone is now keenly aware of what it has brought to human life. The pocket calculators of the 1970s, home computers and the burgeoning internet of the 1980s, World Wide Web of the 1990s as well as video streaming and social network of the 21st century...none of these could come into being without the new microelectronics technologies born out of Apolo. It is fair to say that Project Apolo preluded the era of information economy starting in the 1970s. The HGP, deemed one of the three greatest scientific achievements including Project Apolo in the 20th century, was initiated in 1990 and wound up in 2003. With a total expenditure of 3.8 billion U.S. dollars, it generated a return of $800 billion for the U.S. by 2010, registering an input-output ratio of 1:40 and its long-term influence is even immeasurable. With the radical innovation brought by it to the fields of healthcare, agriculture, environment, energy, etc., we can almost see the dawn of a bio-economy era.

Back in the 1990s, several Chinese scientists studying in the U.S., in order to push for China’s involvement in HGP, made the resolute decision of returning home. However, their proposals were unanimously opposed by domestic scientists for the reason that China, with its weak economic basis, still lagged behind developed countries and it was unnecessary for China to invest heavily in the project because the final genomic maps would go public. As a matter of fact, when the U.K. decided to join the HGP, similar opposition also emerged. The Sanger Institute in the U.K. heatedly debated upon “buy one or get one free” (meaning to make investment and get involved or to wait until the genomic map goes public). But the conclusion was that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and Britain must take part to taste new technological trends and seize the opportunity created by scientific and technological progress. Actually, this can be likened to solving a mathematical problem. What really matters lies in the process instead of the result. Inspired by the Britons, these Chinese scientists, already determined enough, made the decision to play a part with self-pooled funds. They finally got a share of 1%. 13 years after that, this Chinese institute has already grown into the top sequencing body in the world whose data output accounts for half of the world total. In the end of 2012, the CEO of the institute was announced one of the “Ten People Who Mattered This Year” by Nature. Earlier this year, it was entitled one of the “World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in China” by Fast Company and one of the “50 Disruptive Companies” by the MIT Technology Review, whose annual list of the world’s most innovative technology companies in 2013 only includes two Chinese institutes. Besides the internet giant Tencent, it is the only one.

Its name is Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI).

While rejoicing at the existence of such an institute in China, isn’t it true that we should reflect on what China has lost? What we have paid for not participating in the project more actively, vigorously and in the name of the nation? Reflection upon history doesn’t trigger blame but presents a clearer picture of the past. In so doing, we are better able to hold the future in hand and avoid old mistakes.

The development of new medications can be taken as an example. Early research showed that between the year 1950 and 2010, the input-output ratio of new medication development dropped rapidly. Researchers described the predicament faced by medications development with the term “Eroom’s Law”, which is actually the reverse spelling of the “Moore’s Law” (i.e. the $1 worth of computer performance doubles every 18 months. Moore’s law shows the speed of the advance of the information technology—author’s note). The transnational pharmaceutical colossuses, awakened timely, called the law the “Patent Cliff”. Foreseeing that income generated by patented drugs of world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies would dwindle steeply between 2008 and 2015, they shifted directions and started to make heavy investment in gene-related drugs.

To date, 19 out of the 20 top transnational pharmaceutical giants around the globe including Novartis, Roche and Pfizer have established strategic cooperation with BGI, jointly promoting the R&D of gene-related drugs. Data show that since the HGP was set in motion in 1990, “gene-medication correlations” have been increasing by the year. In particular, the increment is closely related to the improvement of the genetic sequencing technology and its efficiency.

The Major Program for New Drugs Development, since was launched in China in 2007, has been quite lackluster. Some experts spoke of it in an interesting way: “The atomic bombs supposed to be made finally turned out to be just grenades. Some are even duds! ” By the end of 2012, the program had received 62 new drug certificates, among which 12 went to new medications. The total output value was RMB1, 240 million. 1251 projects under the program had been approved. Of the RMB 30-billion national and local investment, 9.7 billion came from the central finance, 4.1 billion, supportive local investment and 19.3 billion, stimulated enterprise investment. If the two major life science and biotechnology programs for “transgenosis” and “prevention and treatment of communicable diseases” are counted in, the total national and local investment may hit approximately RMB100 billion.

BGI was founded in 1999. Its present estimated market value is about RMB10 billion. Calculated with the original national input of RMB50 million when BGI first joined the HGP, the input-output ratio has already hit 1:200, not to mention the industrial development driven by it, the talents it has nurtured and its profound social influence. Just think. If we took part in the HGP more actively, if we made early arrangements on genomic science and technology and increased investment, we might have realized much earlier the huge and far-reaching impact of the genomic science and technology on fields like biomedicine, healthcare and transgenic agriculture, might have seen much earlier the relevance trend of genetic technology and medication development as well as difficulties faced by medication development, might have avoided many detours and narrowed the gap between China and developed countries.

Innovation theory researchers describe the phenomenon above with the term “lockout”, i.e. when the development path of science and technology takes a big turn, the failure to participate at the right time, to follow closely the scientific and technological progresses and to constantly learn newly emerged ideas would lead to the “lockout” effect, thereby further widening the gap. Perceived from another perspective, organizations are “locked out” and being gradually eliminated by new tides of scientific and technological advances because they have developed a “path dependence” on their original technical lines. The bankrupted Kodak and declining Nokia are cases in point.

When visiting BGI in 2011, Liu Yandong pointed out that “the Party and the country should understand, support and protect new institutions such as BGI and what they do”. Indeed, one “BGI” is far from enough for China. We should understand BGI so as to know more about genomics, about the laws and trends of life science and about its profound socioeconomic impact on bio-economy in the future; we should support BGI so as to buoy up innovations in the fields of life science and biotechnology as well as clear the obstacles and pave the way for leapfrog development; we should protect BGI so as to, when major strategic opportunities present themselves for the development of China’s bio-economy, protect and tolerate innovative “newborns”, minimize “path dependence”, avoid being “locked out” and create an enabling environment for more groundbreaking innovations. This is what really matters for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and realization of the “Chinese Dream”.

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