The Frontal Cortex

The Pentagon and Neuroscience

DARPA, the often secretive research unit of the Pentagon devoted to sponsoring “revolutionary, high-payoff research,” has recently turned its attention to neuroscience. DARPA is best known for creating the precursor of the internet, and for decades lavished its considerable resources on high-end physics. It should not be surprising that the Defense Department is now interested in the brain.

As Sharon Begley recently wrote in the WSJ:

Darpa has good reason to fund neuroscience. Discoveries and new technologies such as noninvasive imaging to detect what the mind is doing might help analysts, pilots and grunts process and react better to barrages of data, and allow real-time assessment of head injuries on the battlefield. Brain-computer interfaces in which thoughts are electronically translated into signals that operate a computer or prosthetic limb might improve rehab for soldiers suffering grievous injuries.

Well, that doesn’t sound so scary. Who wouldn’t support better prosthetic limbs? At the moment, it appears that most of DARPA’s research seeks to “make better soldiers,” allowing pilots to stay alert longer, and to improve the cognitive abilities of the average grunt. For example, I thought this project sounded pretty interesting:

In February, DARPA said it was interested in ways to use EEGs to detect when a brain had found what it was looking for in a photograph, such as a familiar face in a crowd.

Of course, DARPA is also interested in some less benevolent technology as well. (We just don’t know about it yet.) In his calm, comprehensive and fascinating new book Mind Wars, Jonathan Moreno documented the ethical quandaries that DARPA’s research will confront in the future.

First of all, there’s the issue of being funded by the military in the first place. Moreno describes how, during the McCarthy era, the FBI monitored the loyalty of scientists more closely than that of any other group. Scientists were given funding to pursue their pet research projects, but only on the condition that they also produce data with relevance to the military, that would then be kept classified. The truth of the matter is simple: the secretive ethos of working for the Defense Department often clashes with the peer-reviewed process of modern science.

Secondly, there’s the issue of unintended consequences. Much of DARPA’s research sounds pretty harmless right now, but there’s no telling where advances in brain imaging and mind control might take us in the future. Moreno persuasively insists that scientists, especially those being funded by the Pentagon, confront the future technologies that their research might make possible. (i.e., implanting dictatorial electrodes in the rodent brain might make such devices possible in the human brain, which would be downright nightmarish.) There are serious ethical quandaries here, and the only way to properly deal with them is to confront them in advance.

In the end, Moreno’s message is simple: taking money from the Pentagon isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it worked wonders for physics – but it has to be done with open eyes.

What do you think? Is there something inherently wrong with investigating the brain with the Defense Department’s money? What type of brain research, if any, should DARPA avoid? There are no easy answers here, but if you’re interested in the difficult questions, then I recommend Mind Wars.

[Note: The first line of this post originally used the word "clandestine". As a few commenters noted, DARPA itself isn't clandestine. Of course, they often insist on classifying research for military purposes. I have changed the first line of the post.]

Comments

  1. #1 Gerard Harbison
    December 18, 2006

    DARPA, the clandestine research unit of the Pentagon

    I got this far and started laughing so hard I couldn’t read any further. Please either (1) look up ‘clandestine’ in the dictionary or (2) stop writing about things you don’t know squat about.

    Here’s DARPA’s ‘clandestine’ web page:

    http://www.darpa.mil/

    It’s a good place to start.

  2. #2 BenP
    December 18, 2006

    Is it because you get a website that you have to write everything on it ?

    Is it possible to hide stuff and be part-time clandestine ? I didn’t read the definition in dict. Sorry.

  3. #3 Jonah
    December 18, 2006

    I meant clandestine in the sense that much of DARPA’s research is clandestine and highly classified. Unlike the NIH, NSF, or other traditional funding sources for science, DARPA often insists, as it must, on a veil of secrecy for the researchers it supports. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But we also shouldn’t pretend that DARPA is just another source of funding for science research. I suggest you read Moreno’s book, particularly the sections relating to “Science and Secrecy”: pages 164-174.

  4. #4 Dave
    December 18, 2006

    Gerard-
    The NSA and CIA also have websites. Hell, Al-Qaeda probably has a website. As someone who has worked in labs receiving Pentagon money, I can tell you that they do insist on a certain level of secrecy. And I’m sure that the secrecy varies with the type of project. DARPA may not be clandestine, but much of what they do is.

  5. #5 Jonah
    December 18, 2006

    For what it’s worth, I’ve changed the first line of the post, so that it no longer suggests that DARPA itself is clandestine. BTW, does anybody know how to cross stuff out on Typepad? I wish there was some way of making it clear that I originally used the word “clandestine,” at least before reaching the end of the post.

  6. #6 Gerard Harbison
    December 18, 2006

    Sure, DARPA sponsors both open and classified research. But if you want to start an unprejudiced discussion about the agency and the research it sponsors, best not to start it with a word that implies it is both secret and illicit; DARPA is neither.

  7. #7 Robert Finn
    December 18, 2006

    I had to laugh when I read this article. I’m a science writer who was trained as a neuroscientist, and early in my writing career I wrote an article for Science Digest magazine about DARPA support of neuroscience. This would have been in 1983 or 1984. The article never appeared; Science Digest went out of business first (but not until they paid me, thankfully).

    One of the main things DARPA was interested in 23 or 24 years ago — and were apparently funding generously — was “Brain-computer interfaces in which thoughts are electronically translated into signals that operate a computer.” The specific example a DARPA official mentioned in our interview was using thoughts to control jet aircraft.

  8. #8 PhysioProf
    December 20, 2006

    I trained in a DARPA-funded neuroscience lab in the late 1980s. They have been funding neuroscience research for a long time.

  9. #9 Renaisauce
    June 14, 2007

    I wouldn’t mind working for DARPA. Data is data, and as long as they write me a nice letter of recommendation for when I leave, I’m good with generating data on their substantial bucks. It’s the other truly clandestine agencies that are creepy- the ones that don’t have names and want to know how a technology works on rats before they try it on aliens. Scientists that work for them can’t leave, can’t get tenure, and often aren’t heard from again. Bad career choice.