Over 600 (as of this writing) neuroscientists from around the world, but with a very large proportion representing Europe, have written an open letter expressing concern with the Human Brain Project (HBP) and its cousin the U.S. BRAIN Initiative. It appears that the neuroscience community regards these projects as of relatively low value, while at the same time, these projects are sucking up a very large proportion of the funding for neuroscience. From the letter.
… 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 Partnership 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.
… 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.
Why all this fuss? As far as I can tell, there is a conflict between those who wish to understand the “human brain” (which is a term here meant to refer to the human mind, human cognition, thought process, and all the neuro-biological process that underlies that) and those who want to build a human brain. It appears that when a half a gig of neuro scientists decry the project for being “too narrow” what thy are really saying is that all this money is being spent to build a replicate of a brain, a functioning brain that will operate inside a super-computer, rather than on understanding what brains are and how they work. And this ultimately may come down to a conflict between much of the global neuro-science community and one man: Henry Markram.
From The Guardian:
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. The brain, the most complex object known, has some 86bn neurons and 100tn connections.
“The main apparent goal of building the capacity to construct a larger-scale simulation of the human brain is radically premature,” Peter Dayan, director of the computational neuroscience unit at UCL, told the Guardian.
“We are left with a project that can’t but fail from a scientific perspective. It is a waste of money, it will suck out funds from valuable neuroscience research, and would leave the public, who fund this work, justifiably upset,” he said.
Henry Markram is not unfamiliar to those of you who read this blog faithfully and remember every detail. A public comment by him regarding the Recursive Fury fiasco was addressed here: Fisking Henry Markram’s Comment About “Recursive Fury” and the Frontiers Retraction. Markram seems to have a knack for making people want to run away in frustration. (See this for more details.)
One of these days, Markram is going to make his brain, and take over the world. But until then he should learn to get along better with others.