€1B Human Brain Project back on track after Commission signs new contract

03 Nov 2015 | News
The flagship project has been reorganised following an open revolt by neuroscientists who were unhappy at the direction of travel. A new management structure will ensure no single institution has overall control

The European Commission has guaranteed funding for the controversial Human Brain Project (HBP) until at least 2019, following a review of the project and restructuring of the research programme.

An agreement signed with project leader the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) last week sets out the research direction for the next seven and a half years and confirms HBP will continue to receive funding from the EU Horizon 2020 programme, pending successful independent reviews and proposal evaluations.

EPFL Provost Philippe Gillet, president of HBP’s board of directors, cheered the massive overhaul of the structure. The three-member executive committee led by neuroscientist Henry Markram, which exercised most of the management power, has been dissolved and replaced by a 22-member governing board.

In addition, plans are underway to create a new legal entity for the project which will ensure no single institution has too much control over its direction.

“It will no longer just be a project, it will be something more ambitious,” said Gillet.

For the 112 institutions participating in HBP, the hope is the agreement marks a line in the sand after the project fell into disarray, with some neuroscientists criticising the emphasis on large-scale mapping of the brain and computer simulations rather than traditional, small-scale bench research. A protest letter questioning the project’s scientific validity and its governance appeared online in July 2014 and quickly gathered more than 800 signatures from scientists.

A committee of 27 scientists set up to review all the arguments concluded the project had raised “unrealistic expectations”.

The agreement signed last Friday reflects many of the recommendations that appeared in the committee’s report. 

A key subproject on cognitive neurosciences research – which HBP had planned to scrap from its core programme—has been reinstated and strengthened. Four new research projects were selected and announced in September, following a process organisers say was more open and competitive than in the past. €8.9 million has been set aside for these initiatives over the next two years.

Every group involved in the consortium will have to reapply for funding every two years.

Neuroscientist Katrin Amunts, at the Jülich Research Centre in Germany, praised the tighter focus of the next phase. Amunts is co-director of the HBP subproject ‘Strategic Human Brain Data’, and will lead research in brain functions such as episodic memory, the sleep–wake cycle, visual processing and consciousness.

Whether the newly-formed organisation will be based in non-EU member Switzerland or not remains to be seen. A Swiss referendum in early 2014 voted in favour of a controversial motion to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens, which flew in the face of the country’s standing bilateral agreements with the EU. It had immediate ramifications for Switzerland’s participation in Horizon 2020, which was swiftly downgraded.

“It’s a valid discussion, but in fact it’s almost irrelevant for the here and now: it’s not at our level,” said a Commission official, referring to the diplomatic repair work being carried out by negotiators on both sides.  

Meanwhile there are fears the €1 billion funding foreseen at the launch of the projects might not fully materialise. Some EU member states, expected to contribute half of the project’s overall budget, have not yet made any commitments.

Gillet played down concerns it could affect the project's scope and timeline. “The other half of the budget is progressively stepping in,” he said. “We still have a commitment from the Swiss Federation, which decides its budget every four years. We will also get it for the next period.”

End of the revolt?

The big question is whether the new agreement can restore confidence among the project’s detractors and put it on the right scientific path.  

“A substantial fraction of the governance suggestions have been adopted, which is excellent,” said Peter Dayan, a computational neuroscientist at University College London, who was a member of the mediation committee charged with helping the project back on the rails after the publication of the letter.

“However, the new [management] of the project was intended to produce a new scientific plan in the new agreement. A comparatively minor-to-modest fraction of the scientific recommendations has led to meaningful change, which is unfortunate,” added Dayan.

When asked if the project should have taken the report’s broader observations on board, lead author Wolfgang Marquardt, director of Germany’s Jülich Research Centre, demurred. “I can understand the question but I’m not a reviewer,” he said. “We didn’t see our role as a review panel. My role was to act as a mediator.”

“The change of governance is clearly a step in the right direction but it will be important to see who sits on the various committees they have created,” said Alexandre Pouget of Geneva University’s Neuroscience Centre. 

“The reintegration of the cognitive neuroscience is also a positive step, along with the cross-cutting projects, which should promote collaborations between the various branches of the HBP,” Pouget said.

However, Pouget is still concerned about the simulation effort, which many scientists regard as premature, if not unfeasible altogether. “The mediation committee had qualified [it] as non-credible in their report,” he said. “It's impossible to tell from the agreement whether the HBP intends to rethink this part of the project, which would seem crucial given the enormous resources allocated to simulations.”

Mathew Diamond of Italy’s International School of Advanced Studies said, “Agreeing to some proposal and implementing it are two different things. Let us assume that the new agreement is an improvement. It can be, at best, an incremental adjustment of a strategy that is simply not right for life sciences, certainly not for neuroscience.”

There are many theoretical models of the brain, some better than others. “The notion that one single vision of the nervous system should predominate the research landscape is damaging, both for scientific individualism but perhaps more important from the practical point of view, for the funding of research initiatives,” Diamond said.

In common with other signatories of last year’s protest letter, Guy Orban, a neuroscientist and European Research Council grantee based at the University of Parma, is envious of the situation in the US, where the multibillion-dollar BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative has fared much better than the HBP so far.

Orbam puts its success down to better involvement of the neuroscience community. “When [President Barack] Obama was setting it up, he didn’t call artificial intelligence people or informatics people, he called people who studied the brain,” Orban said.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up