The world’s largest project the Human Brain Project (HBP) is now under the risk of being boycotted. The project launched by Europe for $1.6 billion last year in attempt to recreate the functioning of the human brain on supercomputers, has been threatened by nearly 200 scientists to be boycotted.
The European Commission’s Human Brain Project (HBP), received an open letter signed by the neuroscientists on Monday, contending that the 10-year major initiative was mismanaged and it is doomed to fail in its goal of simulating the inner workings of the human brain.
“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,” according to the open message, which as of 10 am EDT had been signed by 192 researchers. “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.”
Around 87 European and international research institutions signed up to the 10-year project.
HBP’s website lists 189 researchers, 113 partner institutions, and 21 “collaborating partner” institutions.
The 87 included four U.S. institutions: the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; the Allen Institute for Brain Research, the University of California Los Angeles and Yale University. At deadline, a single US researcher had signed the open message—Konrad Kording, Ph.D., of Northwestern University.
“The main apparent goal of building the capacity to construct a larger-scale simulation of the human brain is radically premature,” Peter Dayan, director of the computational neuroscience unit at UCL, 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,” he said.
“HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning,” the letter reads in part. “Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals. Further attrition of members during the ramp-up phase added to this narrowing.”
Alexandre Pouget, a signatory of the letter at Geneva University said, “There is a danger that Europe thinks it is investing in a big neuroscience project here, but it’s not. It’s an IT project,” he said. “They need to widen the scope and take advantage of the expertise we have in neuroscience. It’s not too late. We can fix it. It’s up to Europe to make the right decision.”
The European Commission is currently discussing how to distribute the next round of HBP funding, which will include approximately $68 million for the “core project” and a similar amount for related research.
This prompted the letter of concern, criticizing the HBP for a perceived “lack of flexibility and openness,” and more fundamentally, for not being “adequate to further our understanding of the brain.”
Richard Frackowiak, director of clinical neuroscience at the University Hospital of Lausanne, and co-leader of a strand of the Human Brain Project focusing on “future medicine”, said that many of the complaints were “irrational sniping” from scientists who were ill-informed, or wanted the funds to pursue their own research agendas. He said that simulations of the brain represented a long-needed “paradigm shift” in neuroscience.
European Union officials said they were consulting with their own experts, but spokesman Ryan Heath called for patience, and for all parties in the dispute “to work together.”