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Brain project directors hit back at research critics

Caroline Bishop · 11 Jul 2014, 10:24

Published: 11 Jul 2014 10:24 GMT+02:00

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Launched last year, the Human Brain Project brings together 112 institutions in 24 countries and is directed by EPFL in Lausanne.

On Monday hundreds of dissenting scientists, including many from Swiss universities, signed a letter to the European Commission, which largely funds the 10-year flagship project, complaining of its “overly narrow approach”.

The open letter, signed by professors across Europe including some from Swiss universities, said: “We strongly question whether the goals and the implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.”

Central to the complaints is the fact that the project is initially concentrating on creating new IT systems to allow scientists around the world to collaborate, rather than ploughing funds into cognitive research.

Speaking to UK newspaper The Guardian, Geneva University neuroscientist Alexandre Pouget, said: "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.

"They need to widen the scope and take advantage of the expertise we have in neuroscience. It's not too late. We can fix it. It's up to Europe to make the right decision."

Responding on Thursday, the HBP executive committee and board of directors called for participants to discuss perceived problems in the project “through direct scientific exchange”.

In their four-page response, directors said they were “saddened” by the open letter, which they feel “divides rather than unifies our efforts to understand the brain”.

Directors said that while there was no doubt cognitive science was vital for the project, it should come after the creation of IT tools.

“Creating and supporting an open user community... is among the most important goals of HBP and an essential part of the current work programme,” they said.

“Reconstructing and simulating the human brain is a vision, a target; the benefits will come from the technology needed to get there. That technology, developed by the HBP, will benefit all of neuroscience as well as related fields.”

They added that “cognitive and behavioural neuroscience will become the most significant component of neuroscience in HBP over the course of the project. However, for this to happen the platforms have to be in place first.”

Prioritizing tasks in this way was not unusual for a scientific project of this size, directors said.

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The implementation of IT resources is classed as a ‘core project’ in the HBP, while neuroscience research is classed as a ‘partnering project’.

“The Board... decided that, in the Operational Phase, some cognitive neuroscience activities would fit better in the Partnering Projects, where they could focus on the investigator-driven research advocated by the signatories of the open letter,” said the response.

It added: “The HBP is not a funding mechanism and unfortunately it cannot include all relevant and worthy work at all stages. The HBP aims to unify by building technologies that everyone, including the signatories of the open letter, finds useful.”

Speaking to Swiss newspaper Le Temps on Friday, EPFL president Patrick Aebischer, said “There are certainly well-known scientists who are against the project, but there are plenty of others, neuroscientists, who support it.”

The current wave of dissent is due to a “snowball effect,” he said, commenting that the project has had its sceptics from the beginning.

“Many neuroscientists have never understood that the HBP is a project linked to the EU’s IT division,” he told Le Temps.

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Caroline Bishop (news@thelocal.ch)

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