Science & Environment

Stand-off in brain project debate


After leaders of the billion-euro Human Brain Project hit back at critics, six top neuroscientists have expressed "dismay" at their public response.

Last week an open message, signed by over 600 researchers, said the HBP was "not on course", demanding a review.

An official reply said HBP members were "saddened" by the protest and Prof Henry Markram, the project's chair, has labelled it a personal crusade.

In a letter to Nature, the six authors call for a more "open-minded attitude".

They did not sign the original protest letter, but are disappointed by the publicly reported stance of the HBP leadership.

"Instead of acknowledging that there is a problem and genuinely seeking to address scientists' concerns, the project leaders seem to be of the opinion that the letter's 580 signatories [now over 600] are misguided," wrote Prof Richard Morris, an eminent neuroscientist from the University of Edinburgh, and five colleagues.

The six correspondents describe themselves as "neuroscientists in Europe who care about the success of research projects large and small in our field".

Prof Richard Frackowiak, a co-executive director of the HBP, told the BBC he "strongly objects" to the idea that the project leaders were dismissive. "We've taken this extremely seriously," he said.

The HBP is one of two flagship technology projects (the other being graphene research) announced in January 2013 by the European Commission (EC).

Widespread disagreement

In an open message to the EC, hundreds of neuroscientists last week expressed concern at the narrow scientific focus and closed management style of the project's leaders. They demanded an independent review and pledged to boycott HBP-related funding if not heeded.

The HBP team issued a response, saying "[Our members] are saddened by the open letter... as we feel that it divides rather than unifies our efforts to understand the brain. However, we recognise that the signatories have important concerns about the project."

But in a subsequent email to the BBC, project figurehead Prof Henry Markram, from the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) in Switzerland, questioned the motivation behind the letter. He suggested it was driven largely by one person - Dr Zachary Mainen, the Director of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Portugal.

He pointed out that Dr Mainen was among a group of cognitive scientists who were "repositioned" outside the core of the project. "We have issued a formal response to explain the project better, but we will no longer be taking his Open Letter seriously," Prof Markram wrote.

Image caption Before leading the billion-euro Human Brain Project, Prof Markram also started the Blue Blue Brain Project, which aims to simulate the brain in a supercomputer

Other signatories - and now, it seems, interested observers like the six neuroscientists who have written to Nature - disagree.

"You don't get the support of 600 people if it's a one man crusade," said Dr Alexandre Pouget from the University of Geneva, who helped Dr Mainen organise the open message. Dr Pouget was involved in the HBP before it received the flagship funding but withdrew, along with several colleagues, in 2012.

"It was originally supposed to have a big theory component, but many of us were worried about the increasing focus on simulations," he told BBC News.

Management change

Prof Frackowiak conceded that perhaps communication within the project could have been "more proactive", but said its leadership had been far from autocratic.

"We remain a project that is totally open and is building infrastructures for the use of the whole community," he said.

"We're going through a process of construction. Our governance procedures are evolving." The structure at the top of the project would soon change, Prof Frackowiak explained, with the appointment of a new chair whose role will be separate from Prof Markram, who will act as a CEO.

A US politician has also stepped in to defend the project. Congressman Chaka Fattah, who is a supporter of the HBP's trans-atlantic counterpart the BRAIN Initiative, wrote in the Huffington Post, "The Human Brain Project is large and ambitious, and as a result has the potential to be a disruptive force in a field that for far too long has been narrowly focused on an incremental approach."

Wait and see

The EC has responded to the open message, thanking the authors for their feedback and pointing to a "rigorous annual review" scheduled for January 2015.

Asked whether that review would be transparent and independent, as requested by the signatories, a spokesperson told the BBC it would "take into account the requests contained in the open letter... while respecting the existing rules which are related to data protection".

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Media captionProf Markram discusses the goals of the HBP in 2013

Dr Pouget said he and Dr Mainen had met with the head of the EC's FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Flagships Unit, which funds both the HBP and the Graphene Flagship.

"It was very positive," said Dr Pouget. "I'm still waiting to see what happens next. We certainly hope that the European Commission will take this crisis seriously.

"What happened last week is very unusual."

Prof Frackowiak does not see the situation as a crisis. "I think this has been good, because it's raised the issue in the public eye," he said.

"Our next scientific review will be in January and we're looking forward to it."

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