Is it business as usual for the Human Brain Project ? The €1.2billion programme has drawn gasps of praise and ridicule ever since it announced intentions to simulate the entire human brain within ten years. More than 750 researchers in the neuroscience community responded by signing an open letter, criticising the over-ambitious goals of the project and the governance that had led to its selection. To give an idea of the complexity of the task at hand, there are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain, and an estimated 100 trillion connections between them.
During second week in September alone, a new press release, memo, and a staff working document from the EC have been published; none of which acknowledge concerns in the scientific community. Only a blog post from Robert Madelin, director-general for the EC’s directorate general for communications networks, content and technology —also known as DG Connect—indicates that the widely reported protests have been noted in the form of a link to the appointment of a new mediator. This person is tasked with the purpose of “develop[ing] and realis[ing] proposals for restructuring the project governance. Another goal is to establish and implement a new balanced scientific focus for the Human Brain Project (HBP)”.
The mediator, who is not a member of the governance or structure of the HBP, is Wolfgang Marquardt, chairman of the board of directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Centre) since 1st July 2014. Prior to that, he was professor at RWTH Aachen University and chairman of the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne. As yet, no details are given as to the scope or powers of his mediator role. Merely that his involvement is in “response to the current discussion in the neuroscience community within the project and beyond.” It is perhaps notable that these quotes are from the Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Centre) website, not from the EC.
The HBP is one of two new Future and Emerging Technology (FET) Flagship projects designed as “visionary, large-scale… research initiatives which tackle scientific and technological challenges across scientific disciplines.” The other Flagship project is graphene, which has attracted none of the criticism levelled at the HBP. Central to the project is the stated aim—reaffirmed in the memo link above—to be “ready to deliver a high fidelity model of the human brain for in silico science, medicine and technology implementation and a first map of major brain diseases,” by 2023.
This is just too much, too soon for many. “Anyone who is serious in neuroscience could tell you this is simply unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Like saying we’re soon going to land humans on one of the moons of Jupiter,” says Alexandre Pouget, a computational neuroscientist based at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, who set up the open letter of protest, along with neuroscientist Zach Mainen of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Lison, Portugal.
Pouget says that he and Mainen were involved with the project at an early stage and tried to reform it from the inside but were shut out. The last straw, Pouget says, was losing faith that the project was being run by the right people when influential labs left the core project, which constitutes about half the funds, used to develop major ICT infrastructure to handle data.
Pouget is confident that without substantial changes to the governance of the HBP, scientists will make good on their signed and stated threat not to apply for HBP funds though the partnering projects. The latter make up roughly the other half of funds —hundreds of millions of Euros—that could remain unspent, or spent unwisely if the best scientists do not apply. “We had a huge amount of support in July [when the open letter was released]. Things need to happen. If not, the vast majority of scientists will refuse to cooperate.”
Communication and governance issues
Inside the HBP, Thierry Vanderply, director of the excellence in science directorate of the EC’s DG Connect, admits the goals are risky. “Top-level scientists have evaluated the project, and yes the goals are ambitious, but there are big rewards expected in terms of science and on society.” He says that there have been questions of communication and governance, but it’s good that researchers feel directly involved and impacted. “I think this is a healthy debate,” he says, explaining that checks are in place to balance the various disciplines inside the project, and that some of its elements can be cancelled.
He adds that in astronomers and physicists are used to working together in larger programmes, through huge telescopes and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN for example. “In neuroscience it is much more fragmented,” says Vanderply. “There is certainly an element of culture we need to take into account, but to have more collective work and more collaborative work.”
Assessing the future
It is worth recalling that the Human Genome Project was also called over ambitious when it was announced, but delivered on time and is probably the best example of what a lot of money and collective effort can achieve in modern science. HBP scientists have defended its scope and talked up the benefits of a ‘CERN for the brain’. But in sequencing human DNA the private sector were also in on the act, and existing sequencing technology was demonstrably capable of doing the job, albeit slowly.
“These huge projects always yield fantastic outcomes, simply by getting so many people to work on something,” says neurobiologist Bjoern Brembs of the University of Regensburg, who is not affiliated with the HBP nor a signatory of the open letter. “Just by sheer statistics, there will be some really smart people doing some very important, relevant and ground-breaking stuff.”
However, he empathises with the projects detractors. “In most aspects they’re dead on. In my estimation of the time-frame of the project is more like 2123, not 2023,” says Brembs.
The HBP is subject to Framework Partnership Agreement reviews at stated junctures. The first is due in January 2015, with results in March/April. It remains to be seen how far the goalposts will move as the project progresses, or what role the new mediator Wolfgang Marquardt will have in bringing scientists back into the fold who have publicly stated that they boycott the project.
When contacted by EuroScientist, Marquardt said that under the terms of reference for the mediation process, which he does not want to share before the project summit at the end of September 2014, “puts the mediator in a strong position to achieve the implementation of a readjustment of the project governance and scientific balance.”
Responding to the announcement of the external mediator, Mainen says “we do feel this is an important step recognising the gravity of the situation and the inability of the HBP to resolve management and scientific issues internally.” It could be a smokescreen, or the EC learning some hard lessons on the governance of major project evaluations.
Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Ryan Somma
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