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Scientists worldwide protest EU’s $1.6bn brain-mapping project

Scientists worldwide protest EU’s $1.6bn brain-mapping project
Neuroscientists worldwide are challenging an ambitious EU-funded $1.6 billion project to build a supercomputer simulation of the human brain, saying the effort is doomed. They are urging investment in existing projects instead.

Nearly 370 neuroscientists and researchers across the world – from the US to Japan – have signed an open letter to the European Commission.

The number of signatories on the letter – first published on Monday - is growing with more and more scientists intending to boycott the project if the EU refuses to adopt their recommendations.

Critics, including researchers at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Harvard and Stanford, say that the Human Brain Project (HBP) is “controversial and divisive” and “would fail to meet its goals” because it focuses on “an overly narrow approach.”

The 10-year effort was announced in 2013, just months before the US launched a related BRAIN Initiative to map the activity of the human brain.

The EU’s project involves more than 80 European and international research institutions and is aimed, according to its website, at building “a completely new information computing technology infrastructure for neuroscience.”

“If we can rise to it, we can gain profound insights into what makes us human, build revolutionary computing technologies and develop new treatments for brain disorders,” the HBP says.

But many researchers have refused to join HBP, saying it has “proved controversial from the start” on the grounds that it was far too premature to attempt a simulation of the entire human brain in a computer.

A scientist works in the laboratory of Professor Henry Markram (not pictured) head of the Human Brain Project during a media tour after a new conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Ecublens, near Lausanne January 29, 2013 (Reuters / Valentin Flauraud)

Some scientists insist the project is taking the wrong approach and that it’s a waste of money.

They have now come up with a list of “criteria,” which should be implemented, and are calling on EC officials to take “a very careful look” at the science and management before deciding on whether to renew its funding.

“At stake is funding on the order of 50 million euros per year for the “core project” and 50 million euros ($68 million) in “partnering projects” provided largely by the European member states’ funding bodies,” the letter reads.

They say the review will find "substantial failures" in the project's governance, flexibility and openness.

“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,” the letter states.

Unless the EU takes their recommendations on board, neuroscientists “pledge not to apply for HBP partnering projects and will urge our colleagues to join us in this commitment.”

But the HBP’s head, Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, said that “criticisms are premature[sic],” and called it “a natural reaction when you move from an old paradigm to a new one.”

Markram’s colleague, co-director of the HBP Richard Frackowiak, has criticized the letter’s signatories for pursuing their own research agendas, saying they were “ill-informed,” The Guardian reported. Frackowiak said that simulations of the brain represented a long-needed "paradigm shift" in neuroscience, the newspaper added.