With the mysteries of particle physics well in hand, the European Union is moving onto another big fish in the realm of science: the human brain. The aptly-named “Human Brain Project” is aimed at figuring out how our grey matter works by using supercomputers to simulate its inner-workings. Not everyone is happy with the way the EU is going about the project however, with 150 neuroscientists publishing an open letter denouncing the HBP’s “overly narrow approach”, dramatically increasing its risk of failure.
The letter, published in early July, can be read in full online. Essentially, it blames the HBP’s diminished goals on the “attribution of members” during the project’s build-up and a reduction in funding which led to dropping an “entire neuroscience subproject” and the “deletion” of 18 laboratories.
It goes on to say that the project is “not on course” and that a serious review must be undertaken before further funding is approved.
The scientists’ plea did not go unanswered, with the European Commission director-general Robert Madelin responding to their concerns on 18 July.
The crux of his reply is that the difficulty, scale and expense of the project naturally leads to disagreements and debates on how it is implemented and executed — something the EC wants to not only hear, but encourage. Currently, the HBP is under review by “high-level and independent experts”, with September marked as the due date for recommendations.
Madelin states he is “pretty confident” the review will discover a “satisfactory approach” to the project:
I am pretty confident that the next months will see a satisfactory approach even on the issues raised by the critics of the current project plans. That will in turn unlock the HBP’s ring-fenced budget in Horizon 2020. While HBP does not use resources dedicated to such as the European Research Council or the health “societal challenge”, which give parallel support to neurosciences, I am also confident that HBP will complement such programmes and projects, at EU and at Member State level.
He concludes by urging critics to be patient until the evaluation is complete, at which point all parties can reassess the situation.