More than 100 scientists threaten to boycott 'premature' project to study brain

Scientists fear the 10-year, HK$12.6 billion European initiative to create a supercomputer simulation is premature and a waste of resources

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 11:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 4:07am


The world's largest project to unravel the mysteries of the human brain has been thrown into crisis with more than 100 leading researchers threatening to boycott the effort amid accusations of mismanagement and fears that it is doomed to failure.

The European Commission launched the €1.2 billion (HK$12.6 billion) Human Brain Project (HBP) last year with the ambitious goal of turning the latest knowledge in neuroscience into a supercomputer simulation of the human brain. More than 80 European and international research institutions signed up to the 10-year project.

But it proved controversial from the start. Many researchers refused to join on the grounds that it was far too premature to attempt a simulation of the entire human brain in a computer. Now some claim the project is taking the wrong approach, wastes money and risks a backlash against neuroscience if it fails.

In an open letter to the European Commission yesterday, more than 130 leaders of scientific groups around the world, including researchers at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and University College London (UCL), warned they would boycott the project unless major changes were made to the initiative.

The researchers urged EU officials who are now reviewing the plans to take a hard look at the science and management before deciding on whether to renew its funding. They believe the review, which is due to conclude at the end of the summer, will find "substantial failures" in the project's governance.

Central to the latest controversy are recent changes made by Henry Markram, head of the HBP at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne. The changes sidelined cognitive scientists who study high-level brain functions, such as thought and behaviour.

Without them, the brain simulation will be built from the bottom up, drawing on more fundamental science, such as studies of individual neurons. The brain, the most complex object known, has some 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections.

"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, said.

"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.

Europe's decision to approve the HBP spurred US scientists to propose a major project of their own. The US Brain Initiative aims to map the activity of the human brain and could win US$3bn in funding over 10 years.

Alexandre Pouget, a signatory of the letter at Geneva University, said that while simulations were valuable, they would not be enough to explain how the brain works. "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.

But Markram staunchly defends the project. He said its goal was not to churn out more of the data that neuroscientists already produce, but to develop new tools to make sense of the vast data sets coming out of brain sciences.

Richard Frackowiak, director of clinical neuroscience at the University Hospital of Lausanne, said that many of the complaints were "irrational sniping" from scientists who were ill-informed, or wanted the funds to pursue their own research.