Europe’s €1B Human Brain Project needs urgent reform, report says

11 Mar 2015 | News
Neuroscientists say their claims that the hugely divisive project was being taken over by computer scientists have been validated

Europe’s flagship €1 billion Human Brain Project (HBP) needs quick reform, according to an independent review published by the Commission.

“Important corrective actions” must be taken if the project is to continue meeting its objectives, the review says.

The review followed a letter of protest last summer signed by 800 neuroscientists who claimed the HBP had been taken over by computer scientists. Without directly referencing the letter, the review panel echoes many of its concerns.

A fuse was lit last May, when it became clear the project’s leaders intended to exclude studies on cognition from the future plan. For neuroscientists, this represented too much of a shift away from a biology project into a technology-dominated one.

The HBP is a hugely ambitious attempt involving 112 European institutions, which is attempting to create a computer model of the brain, down to the level of individual cells, within a ten-year timeframe. It is set to receive up to €1 billion in funding from the EU and national governments.

A second report on the state of the project by independent mediation committee, is expected to be released next week. Reforms must be put in place by June.

However, the managers of the HBP have launched a pre-emptive strike:  heeding repeated calls to re-arrange the governance structure, it was announced last week that the project’s three-member executive committee, which the protest letter said was too powerful, has been dissolved.

From now on, decision making will be made by the 22-member governing board “[It’s] is a good thing [to do],” said Benedikt Berninger, a professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. “A project of this size requires to be handled in a more transparent way.”

Henry Markram, founder and leader of HBP said the report’s recommendations are “constructive”. “It will make the project stronger and move us even faster than we hoped in the direction of a permanent European research infrastructure – a CERN for the brain,” he said.

Scientist’s reactions

The HBP has caused a deep division in the neuroscience community. Scientists said while their fears have been confirmed by the Commission’s report, their concerns have not been dispelled.

“Many of the Commission’s recommendations validate the concerns we outlined in that letter, such as the inadequate management and governance structure, and the lack of engagement with the international scientific community outside of the project,” said James Bednar, the director of the Doctoral Training Centre in Neuroinformatics in the UK’s University of Edinburgh.

“Because I am a strong proponent of computational methods in brain science, I hope that the HBP will not fail, but given the risk factors I would not put any of my own money into betting that it would succeed,” Bednar added.

Moshe Abeles, a brain researcher from the Bar Ilan University in Israel, also found worth in the suggested reforms, but remains disillusioned with the HBP. “The demand that the organisers make less bombastic claims is justified – but I do not see that it changes anything practically,” he said.

Ad Aertsen, a neuroscientist at the University of Freiburg, and another signatory of the protest letter, said it is time to carefully re-start thinking on how to move neuroscience, instead of IT development, forward in Europe. “This time guided by rules of decent science,” he said.

Selling HBP to the public

In addition to the complaint that the HBP was being taken over by computer scientists, the open letter also protested about the way the project was sold to the public. The validity of this is recognised by the review panel’s report which says, “It is important for the HBP to better articulate its strategic goals and to communicate them in a clear and realistic way, within the HBP, to the wider scientific community and to the public, and to avoid at all costs creating unrealistic expectations.”

Despite acknowledging decent progress in some of the sub-projects, the panel calls for more effort to pull the whole project together saying, “It is clear that very significant efforts remain to be made, in terms of coordination and integration, for the HBP to become a truly large unified project.”

See HBP review here

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