Human Brain Project Facing Criticism and Calls For Boycott From Scientific Community


Several prominent research organizations in Europe are calling for a boycott of the European Commission-funded Human Brain Project over accusations that the $2 billion initiative is being poorly managed and that its overarching goals are implausible.

The European Commission announced the 10-year project last year, and spent the remainder of the year soliciting grant applications from researchers across Europe. The Human Brain Project’s strategic objective is to advance computer science and neuroscience by mapping the human nervous system and then creating a computer model of brain processes that is accurate and representative of the human brain. This model was to be the culminating product of the Human Brain Project, with the hope that it would go on to revolutionize neuroscience research and ultimately help unlock new understandings about neurological processes associated with brain diseases.

The project was highly publicized and spawned a copycat project in the US, called the Brain Initiative, that establishes largely the same goals, sets a 10-year timeline, and is funded by the US government to the tune of $3 billion.

Now, EU researchers are denouncing the project, claiming that its narrow scope is limiting the depth and quality of research being conducted. In a letter sent to the European Commission, a group of more than 100 researchers explains “the HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning. 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.”

Criticism of the Human Brain Project has intensified in recent days, prompted because of a decision to eliminate funding for cognitive scientists, a group of neuroscientists who focus on high-level brain functions like thought and behavior. The Human Brain Project, researchers say, is controlling a massive share of the research dollars available to neuroscientists and is funneling those dollars into research projects focused on mapping and digitalizing neuron connections. Alexandre Pouget, a Geneva University neuroscientist who signed the letter sent to the EC, says "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. They need to widen the scope and take advantage of the expertise we have in neuroscience.”

Human Brain Project director Henry Markram, working from the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne, makes the counter-argument that the Human Brain Project was never meant to moderately advance a huge range of research concepts. Instead, it was meant to be narrowly focused. Its goals were to coordinate and fund the mapping of the human nervous system and oversee the subsequent development of a human brain computer model. Human Brain Project co-leader Richard Frackowiak added that he believes complains are predominantly coming from researchers that are upset they cannot use the funding to pursue their own research agendas.

At the heart of the argument is control of the available funding dollars. The researchers who signed the letter sent to the EU are calling for an independent review of the project’s progress before it awards any additional funding. These researchers propose broadening the scope of the project by agreeing that any research that leads to “understanding brain function and its effect on society” would be eligible for inclusion and funding. The researchers who sent the letter are promising that unless the project’s scope is redefined, or unless the remaining funds are stripped from the Human Brain Project and reallocated to the general neuroscience community, they will boycott the Human Brain Project altogether.

Researchers from some of the world’s leading neuroscience research centers have signed the letter, including the UK’s Oxford University and Cambridge University, Harvard University and Columbia University in the US, and Germany’s Max-Planck-Institute.

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