Neuroscientists Threaten to Boycott Brain Project

More than 250 European researchers sign a letter criticizing the European Commission’s $1.6 billion effort to create a computer simulation of the human brain.

Jul 7, 2014
Bob Grant

WIKIMEDIA, WYGLIFThe European Commission’s (EC) Human Brain Project (HBP) is attracting criticism from leading neuroscientists. More than 250 European researchers have signed an open letter calling on the EC to demand transparency and accountability in the ranks of the project’s governing body, and the signatories threaten to not apply for funding through the project if problems with it aren’t corrected. “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,” the letter read.

At issue is the HBP’s goal to create a computer simulation of the brain by developing technologies that enable the sharing and integrating of neuroscience data, rather than funding cognitive research that deals with high-level brain functions such as thought, consciousness, and behavior. “The notion that we know enough about the brain to know what we should simulate is crazy, quite frankly,” Peter Dayan, a computational neuroscientist at University College London, told ScienceInsider.

Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne leads the HBP and told BBC News that opposition to the project is “premature.” He contests that the signatories of the open letter are simply reticent to adopt a new approach to conducting neuroscience research. “We're dealing here with a new paradigm,” he told BBC News. “Every new paradigm comes with this kind of difficulty, as some fight the inevitable change.”

The HBP is getting €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) from the EC and European Union member states. Dayan told The Guardian that such expenditure raises the stakes for a project that may not be able to deliver on its promises. “The main apparent goal of building the capacity to construct a larger-scale simulation of the human brain is radically premature,” he 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.”

The EC is in the process of conducting a review of the HBP, and a decision on whether to renew the project’s funding is expected at the end of the summer. The open letter calls on the EC, which approved the funding for the HBP months before the US government’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative was green-lighted, to expand, strengthen, and increase the independence of that review to address problems with flexibility and openness in the project’s governance.