A mere 18 months after its announcement, the Human Brain Project (HBP), a gargantuan 10-year, €1.2-billion scientific endeavor, has hit a snag.
Funded in large part by the European Union, HBP seeks to create a computer simulation of the entire human brain, including all its neural pathways. The project has the potential to forever change the way we understand human behavior, neurological disease, neuro-computing and more.
Excitement and support for the project swelled within the scientific community and beyond, but now more than 200 scientists (and counting) from some of the most renowned institutions in the world, including Oxford and the University College of London, are threatening to boycott it and its sister project, the U.S. Brain Initiative.
Chief among their complaints, opponents say the project’s narrow approach threatens to deviate away from its core purpose and lead to failure. According to their open letter to the European Commission:
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.
In June, a Framework Proposal Agreement (FPA) for the second round of funding for the HBP was submitted. This, unfortunately, reflected an even further narrowing of goals and funding allocation, including the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories, as well as further withdrawals and the resignation of one member of the internal scientific advisory board.
In this context, 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. 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.
The letter calls for greater transparency in the form of an independent and diverse review panel that can objectively assess the Human Brain Project’s progress and funding/resource allocation. If their recommendations are not implemented, the signees have pledged “not to apply for HBP partnering projects and will urge our colleagues to join us in this commitment.”
More than €1 billion in project funding remains on the line, and only time will tell how the European Commission and the HBP’s leading researchers will respond.
For a more in-depth look into the divisive and controversial issue, including responses from the project’s leader Henry Markram, PhD, as well as HBP supporters and detractors, check out these great pieces below: