I recently learned about this new NIH initiative to crack down on “brain-doping” in academic researchers. The idea is that if scientists use brain-enhancing (I prefer mental-capacity-enhancing, or mental-creativity-enhancing, or MCE) drugs, it is analogous to athletes using physical performance-enhancing drugs like steroids. So, in the competition for funding, the MCE drug users would be at an unfair advantage.
While I honestly do not know anyone who takes MCE drugs, I must admit that if I did, I would be asking for the hook-up! I believe that the NIH should actually be obligated to prioritize funding for scientists who are willing to risk the (mild!) side effects of MCE drugs in order to produce top-notch scientific results. If I were running a big funding agency, I might well REQUIRE all of the PIs/post-docs/grad students whose salaries were being paid with my grant money to sign a contract outlining their commitment to taking MCE drugs on a regular basis for the duration of the grant. Although some evidence suggests that MCE drugs cause a drastic reduction in the length of a young academician’s career, post-docs and grad students are cheap labor and easily replaced. Really, if you can get one year of high productivity out of a grad student or post-doc via the use of MCE drugs, then you are going to be way ahead of the curve.
I think that the true tragedy of this emerging anti-MCE drug policy is that the researchers who are both law-abiding AND the most enthusiastic about and committed to the advancement of science will be forced to rely solely on the archaic (but legal) substances that we currently associate with increased mental performance: primarily coffee, but also beer and/or wine. The diuretic effects of both caffeine and alcohol serve to frequently distract many young scientists from the task at hand, arguing further for the benefit of using “next-generation” brain-doping substances.
What’s the downside, really? We quickly come up with a cure for cancer? Someone figures out how to grow corn on Mars to power our cars? I say, give me the drugs!