Monday open thread: Rebellion against the Human Brain Project (updated x3, now with more gossip)

FENS, the major European neuroscience meeting, is currently under way. That makes today a good time to announce a European rebellion against the Human Brain Project (HBP). HBP is something like a European-equivalent of the BRAIN Initiative that has people in such a fuss over here in the US except it’s been underway for a year and has a more narrow focus.

It has long been my impression that the HBP has been something of a “give Henry Markram money” project, and the twitter feed kind of reinforces that view. Markram, for those not aware, runs the lab that is working on the Blue Brain Project, an attempt to simulate the human brain – or at least, one cortical column’s worth of it (pieces of the brain not being simulated, to my knowledge: any sensory input, glia, blood flow, the extracellular matrix, and more). The core of the HBP is in a similar vein: informatics, computation, that sort of thing. I’m about as sympathetic as you could get to diverting funding to computation and theory, but I’ve been pretty flabbergasted by some of the overselling that they’ve done to get it.

Look at the response the proposal got a couple years ago in a Nature commentary:

As the response at the meeting made clear, however, there is deep unease about Markram’s vision. Many neuroscientists think it is ill-conceived, not least because Markram’s idiosyncratic approach to brain simulation strikes them as grotesquely cumbersome and over-detailed. They see the HBP as overhyped, thanks to breathless media reports about what it will accomplish. And they’re not at all sure that they can trust Markram to run a project that is truly open to other ideas.

 However, the HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning. 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 is fronted by Zach Mainen and seems to be signed by the entirety of the European neuroscience community not named Henry Markram (I kid, I kid).

Anyone know which subproject was deleted, and which laboratories were affected?

Anyone have a defense of the HBP?

Given the BRAIN Initiative, is there actually a ‘moon shot’ that could be achieved in neuroscience?

Frankly, if I wanted to try simulating the complete nervous system of an animal, I’d start with something smaller and more manageable.
Update: some other coverage. Hilarious quote:
Richard Frackowiak, director of clinical neuroscience at the University Hospital of Lausanne, and co-leader of a strand of the Human Brain Project focusing on “future medicine”, said that many of the complaints were “irrational sniping” from scientists who were ill-informed, or wanted the funds to pursue their own research agendas.
Update 2: I asked one of the signatories about what had spurred the letter, especially given that some of them had been big supporters of the project in the past. The signatory said, “Some were optimistic that any big neuroscience project was better than none; recent changes that make that view less tenable”…I think they were referring to:
Central to the latest controversy are recent changes made by Henry Markram, head of the Human Brain Project 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.
Update 3: Science Magazine has some good quotes about this whole kerfuffle:
“The notion that we know enough about the brain to know what we should simulate is crazy, quite frankly,” Dayan says…
The nixed subproject, called Cognitive Architectures and headed by French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, represented all the neuroscience in Europe that isn’t working on a molecular or synaptic level, says Zachary Mainen of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, one of the authors of the letter. HBP “is not a democracy, it’s Henry’s game, and you can either be convinced by his arguments or else you can leave,” Mainen says.
BAM! I love strong quotes. Indeed, talking to a few people who know more about this than I do, it sounds a lot like this is the after-effect of a power play by Markram. It seems as if by jettisoning the cognitive science portion of HBP, this left him in control of a more computationally-focused project (that he probably wanted the most). Someone suggested that he may lose some of the funds, but he would retain full control of most of the rest.
Markram has a strong personality and people seem worried that he is wresting control of the project to focus on his particular research interests. Obviously, this isn’t sitting well with a lot of the European community…

3 thoughts on “Monday open thread: Rebellion against the Human Brain Project (updated x3, now with more gossip)

  1. Pingback: Bilim adamlarından büyük başarı - Haber, Güncel Haberler, Gündem, Haberler | Haber, Güncel Haberler, Gündem, Haberler

  2. Pingback: “The members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter posted on” | neuroecology

  3. Pingback: Unrelated to all that, 7/11 edition | neuroecology

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