International Human Brain Project

Noanotechnology research on brain at IBM Almaden research facilityA lot of publicity in both the scientific and mass media was recently prompted by the huge investment that the European commission and, very soon after, the US government made in two large research projects that aim to unravel how the human brain works.

The European project, with the extraordinary budget of €1bn (£860m), is called the Human Brain Project, while the US project is called the Brain Initiative and has a more moderate, but still mind-boggling, budget of $100m (£64m). Almost immediately following the announcements, there was an avalanche of public statements and press releases from various institutions and organisations on how computer science, genetics, nanotechnology – almost every single field – will help us identify, map and explain our brains.

When politicians make grandiose announcements about specific science projects that are poised to "save the world", "move humanity further", "cross the next human frontier", I cannot help but feel cynical, suspicious and soon after, a little depressed.

So, after watching Barack Obama's speech accompanied by this kind of grandiose rhetoric I felt as if I had been used and (somewhat) abused as a scientist. Not because I wish in any way to undermine the investment, value or the efforts of thousands of researchers. The reason I felt depressed was because it was clear to me that at the end of these projects we would not have cracked the code of our brains, and cured autism, Alzheimer's and stroke. Perhaps we will be able to understand our brains a little better, but certainly not completely resolve their complexity nor deconstruct how our personalities are written in our brains.

It is great news that many governments in this climate of austerity, budget restrictions and reduced appetite to invest in science are convinced about a noble goal (brain research) and dedicate significant funds to a specific area of research. However, one also needs to acknowledge that if research budgets are shrinking overall, investment of this magnitude in only one or two projects will mean that other research will not get funded at all. That to me is very wrong. Scientific progress requires the intellectual breadth that can only be achieved by spreading wealth fairly across all departments in a university campus.

So where does nanotechnology fit in to all this? Some of our laboratories can provide tools for these projects. However, recent articles about how nanotechnology will make these brain projects successful read to me at best as self-promotion and at worst as opportunism. Even though nanotechnology is powerful, interesting and very promising, repackaging it with brain projects in order to jump on the band-wagon and secure some of the funding is irrelevant and inappropriate. More worryingly, I suspect that this kind of opportunism is also coming into play in other, more distantly related disciplines and areas of research.

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