Interview: What’s wrong with the Human Brain Project?

By Neuroskeptic | July 11, 2014 5:42 am

The hot story in neuroscience this week has been the controversy over Europe’s Human Brain Project (HBP). On Monday, 156 neuroscientists signed an open letter calling for major reforms of the ambitious program, and pledging to boycott it if things don’t change.

hbp logo

Since then, the number of signatories on the letter’s NeuroFuture.eu site has grown to nearly 600. The HBP released an official response on Wednesday.

I emailed Zach Mainen, one of the drafters of the open letter, for comment.


1. In a nutshell, what is wrong with the Human Brain Project today?

There is a core of a perfectly reasonable, if unambitious idea: to build databases and simulations of parts of the brain. That’s being done in many labs already for many years. I did this kind of work for my PhD over 20 years ago. It is nothing revolutionary or paradigm-shifting at all.

Overlaid on that were and are:

(A) A huge amount of salesmanship, which the HBP now admits was ‘miscommunication’ about the true goals and nature of the project. This miscommunication is how the public and European government were sold on this project in the first place. Now that they are admitting this. That leaves us with a €1.2 billion for a project that has very modest and unclear deliverables and is not going to reach the lofty goals it promised. It leaves the neuroscientists who are in the project without a clear goal other than ‘providing data’.

(B) This is combined with a very problematic system for funding and managing science. The HBP is large enough to qualify as a medium to large sized grant program. Yet it is being run in the manner of a small individual lab sized project. The executive committee make the decisions on who receives funding, including how much money goes to themselves. Unlike a grant program, there is no external accountability.

This is likely to breed corruption and is not the way we should be running science. We have better models like the NIH competitive awards or Europe’s ERC program. We need to rethink the mega-project model exemplified by the FET (Future and Emerging Technology) and find better means to help scientists to collaborate. To do this we also need to fix the broken publishing and promotion systems.

2. In your opinion was the HBP flawed from the start, or was it a good idea that went wrong at some point after launch?

Since both (A) and (B) above were built in, it has always been this way. Many of us who joined the project agreed with some aspect of it but were quite naive in retrospect. We took the hype to the somehow acceptable salesmanship that would subside and were not aware of how the process would be run. This could have been known.

Unfortunately, the basic idea of taking grant money almost however you can get it is a rampant problem, especially when involving European consortia, which are large, incredibly bureaucratic.

3. Why has this come to a head now? Haven’t these problems been discussed for some time?

They have been discussed widely, at least the scientific problems. That’s partly why I’m taking the time to go into the policy issues. The reason it comes to a head is that it is up for review later this year so its a chance to do something.

4. What lessons would you say the U.S. BRAIN initiative ought to learn from HBP?

Mostly what to avoid. I think the U.S. made almost all the right moves to be honest. The NIH chose a committee, chaired by Bill Newsome and Cori Bargmann. They got advice from those involved in the Human Genome Project. The committee included a broad range of very respected neuroscientists who consulted a lot more people and they worked hard to come up with a large funding program.

Like the HBP, they chose technology, but they did so in a much more open and flexible process. The resulting program will not be administered by the people who made it up and will be run entirely on competitive calls. Europe could learn a lot from their example, in hindsight of course.

5. You have nearly 400 signatures now [nb: this was sent on Tuesday. It’s now up to 574]. Did you expect such quick success?

Yes. It has been clear that there is a lot of disapproval. The difficult part was coming up with a statement that scientists with diverse views on the problems and solutions could all agree on. We had the first 150, which was the hard part, in three days or so. This was critical. After that it becomes a different thing.

We are happy to have had enormous support from some very influential people who signed up early on and who put some kind of political commitment into it. We also respect those who chose not to sign, but encourage them to speak their opinion on this matter if they feel its important. We will introduce a section on the website for non-signers or non-PIs who want to comment, although there is already a lot of discussion on newspapers and blogs (hopefully like this one!)

6. I was interested when you said: “We need to find better means to help scientists to collaborate. To do this we also need to fix the broken publishing and promotion systems.” Do you see the problems with the HBP as being related to broader problems in science, then?

Yes, which are particularly acute in Europe.

7. Did you (or others) try to achieve change internally within the HBP and find it wasn’t possible?

Yes, we tried via internal channels, including the advisory boards and this resulted in very minor effects.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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