When the European Commission decided to put a lot of eggs in one scientific basket, many researchers were understandably unhappy. The €1.2 billion Human Brain Project (HBP), launched last year, and its billion-dollar American counterpart were never going to please the life-sciences community outside of neurobiology. Now, a large group of European neuroscientists has signed an open letter to the EC expressing concerns about the HBP’s narrow scope. The project is headed by Henry Markram, of the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne, and according to its “vision statement” it aims to: “build a completely new information computing technology infrastructure for neuroscience and for brain-related research in medicine and computing, catalysing a global collaborative effort to understand the human brain and its diseases and ultimately to emulate its computational capabilities“.
Rockefeller University’s Cori Bargmann tweets (@betenoire1) “Main issue in Human Brain Project concern is not “boycott” but a desire for neuroscience, not just informatics”. It is the same objection expressed by petition signatory Alex Pouget to the Guardian: “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”. According to the Guardian piece, project director Markram himself would agree with this assessment, of course putting a positive spin on it: “The rationale of the Human Brain Project is a plan for data: what do we do with all this data? This is a very exciting ICT* project that will bring completely new tools and capabilities to all of neuroscience. It is not a general neuroscience funding source for more of the same research.”
The open letter (as of this writing signed by 189 neuroscientists) calls for a re-evaluation of the goals of the HBP, and is critical of the project’s circumscribed technological focus. The document also calls attention to the very important detail that while the HBP is a €1.2 billion project, only half of this (according to the project website, €643 million) will come from EC core funding- the rest will have to be provided by matching funds from member states, potentially committing already overstretched local budgets to as much as €50 million a year expenditures on HBP.
*Information and Communications Technology.