Talking back

Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

Tuesday Update: Will Leading Scientists Boycott the Humonguous Human Brain Project?


Scientists don't usually lodge a protest against projects funded to the tune of 1.2 billion euros. They usually try to make nice with the organizers to get in on the action.

No one is taking to the streets this time, but more than 200 people (and climbing), among them prominent scientists, are using the megaphone of the Internet to enter a protest about a much-publicized Big Science endeavor. (The count was at 245 signers,mid-afternoon EST, up from 199 in the morning—almost all, if not all, appear to be scientists. By Tuesday afternoon, it was approaching 400. See the end of this article for more.)

Outrage was embodied in the form of an open letter to the European Commission over what the signers claim are the misguided goals of the massive Human Brain Project. Those who signed come from institutions like Oxford, University College of London and the Max Planck Institute.

The Human Brain Project is an attempt to create a computerized facsimile of the entire brain, down to the level of individual molecules, within a 10-year time frame. It has always been viewed with skepticism by some neuroscientists, who view its objectives as impossibly ambitious. The project is principally the brainchild of neuroscientist Henry Markram, who wrote for Scientific American on the topic. (A detailed story on the protest by Ian Sample appears in The Guardian. Also, check out this great book excerpt by Sebastian Seung that we ran on Markram and his desire to create a digital brain. Our coverage on this has been ongoing. Maybe also give a look here and here.)

Here's a snippet of the letter that was drafted by scientists to convey their discontent:

..we wish to express the view that the HBP [Human Brain Project] is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed. We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.

The letter calls for an independent review of the Human Brain Project or perhaps a reallocation of funding to an array of broad-based neuroscience projects that do not just focus on a SimBrain. If either of these options is not forthcoming, the scientists who signed the letter pledge to not participate in the project.

Not your usual Big Science outing, eh?

Markram got back to me with a comment:

It seems that it will take decades more for the neuroscience community to mature to the level of other disciplines. This is such an exciting direction that can bring everyone together to take on this grand challenge. Just so sad that it gets torn apart by scientists that don't want to understand, that believe second-hand rumors and just want money for their next experiment. For the first time in my career as a neuroscientist, I lose hope of neuroscience ever answering any real questions about how the brain works and its many diseases.

Then Zach Mainen, a principal investigator at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Portugal, got back about the reasons for the upsurge of criticism:

A large group (now more than 250) neuroscientists in Europe are trying to send a wake up call to the European Commission to say that the Human Brain Project is not an effective vehicle to form the hub of European neuroscience. Unlike the U.S. Brain initiative, the HBP is a narrowly focused information computing technology effort that, contrary to how it was sold, does not have a realistic plan for understanding brain function. We want the public to know that neuroscience research is not represented by the HBP. We hope that the open message to the EC can help to initiate a dialogue and find a better solution.

The Obama Administration's brain initiative—possibly a multi-billion dollar undertaking, if fully funded—has also met with some grumbling, but at least some of that has subsided as major neuroscientists have assumed an important advisory role.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. One of the trendiest fields in all of science now has to contend with an unprecedented rebellion in the ranks that festers away as the whole world watches.

A Day Later (Tues afternoon): Wow, this is like the Arab Spring for science. The full count is now up to 379 on the petition, a who's who of European neuroscience, with names from outside Europe scattered in. This isn't a petition of Nobel laureates who want to emphasize that global warming is real. It's a bunch of principal investigators, heads of institutes and bench scientists who don't like how money is being allocated in their field. A resounding cri de coeur from the Neuroscience Street

The whole thing raises a whole set of interesting policy questions. Will grass-roots protests over funding become commonplace? There was dissension earlier about the Human Brain Project before funding was approved, but why weren't the fireworks set off earlier—perhaps a change in emphasis in the program after it got started? Will this put a damper on other large biology projects, including the U.S. brain initiative, as governments ask whether placing a bet on a single large program is really worth it?

Image Source: Human Brain Project

Note: This post has been updated (a lot) as some of the people involved with the story have contacted me.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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