Science and Health

$1.4B E.U. Brain Project Has Scientists Slug It Out In Media

An open letter signed by hundreds of European neuroscientists has kicked off an ugly debate over how more than a billion dollars should be spent.

$1.4B E.U. Brain Project Has Scientists Slug It Out In Media
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European scientists are threatening to do something practically unheard of: turn down a billion dollars in funding. (Via Flickr / British High Commission, Ottawa)

Hundreds of scientists have signed an open letter calling for Europe’s massive Human Brain Project to be reevaluated and, if necessary, scrapped, and it’s set off a brainy brawl unfolding in the media. (Via NeuroFuture.eu)

The Human Brain Project is a $1.4 billion European Union initiative to build a supercomputer simulation of the human brain that’s accurate down to the molecular level within 10 years.

The project got off the ground last year and is finishing its “ramp up” phase. It’s undergoing a review before its next round of funding, so this is when the critics have pushed hardest to get their voices heard.

The letter says, “We wish to express the view that the HBP 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.” (Via NeuroFuture.eu)

The debate between that group of scientists and those that support the HBP has started to break into the media, and the two sides seem more than happy to slug it out in the pages of publications like Scientific American or The Guardian.

The critics say the project as it stands now is a boondoggle, and that not enough is known about the brain to even attempt a simulation. (Via Getty Images)

One researcher who signed the letter told The Guardian, "We are left with a project that can't but fail from a scientific perspective. It is a waste of money, it will suck out funds from valuable neuroscience research, and would leave the public, who fund this work, justifiably upset."

Ouch. On the other side, Henry Markram, HBP’s director, has consistently described the project in grand terms like “methodological paradigm shift” and “asking the whole world of neuroscience to come together.” (Via TED)

And Markram told Scientific American the critics just don’t get it. “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.”

At its core, the disagreement seems to stem from two different ideas of what the Human Brain Project is actually for. The critics say it was sold to the public as a neuroscience project.

“Human Brain Project is a 10-year effort to advance our understanding of the human brain and to develop new treatments for medicine and new technologies based on the brain.” (Via Bloomberg)

But a recent change to the project shows otherwise. Cognitive Architectures, the one part of the project dealing with higher brain function, was recently canceled. (Via Human Brain Project)

According to the critics, that decision shows the project is more about supercomputers and computer modeling than about advancing our understanding of the brain. But here’s the kicker: Markram openly says they’re right.

He told the BBC the project’s core resources come from funds set aside for information technology. He said, “It's a computing project. … The money doesn't even come from neuroscience."

So, they agree. Huh. At any rate, it’ll likely be several weeks until we learn whether the boycott will get neuroscientists what they want.