Project on Human Brain

The brain project is failing and must be fixed.

Just like the human brain itself, the European Commission’s billion-euro Human Brain Project (HBP) defies easy explanation. Launched 18 months ago, the massive project is complex and, to most observers, confusing. Many people—both scientists and non-scientists—have thus accepted a description of the project that emerged from its leaders and its publicity machine: the aim of simulating the entire human brain in a supercomputer and so find cures for psychiatric and neurological disorders.

Like many simplistic explanations of the brain, that characterization of the project provoked a backlash from neuroscientists. This climaxed in a full-scale uprising last summer, when hundreds of researchers signed a critical open letter to the commission ( Autocratic management, they complained, was running the project off its scientific course and exaggerating its clinical reach.

An independent committee was established to investigate and mediate on the dispute. Last week it . This time, the main points were easier for outsiders to decipher. The rebellious neuroscientists who made the complaints were correct. The brain project is failing and must be fixed.

The committee’s criticisms endorse more or less all the concerns of the scientists. The project fails not only in its governance, the report says, but also in its scientific plan—particularly the core aim, the simulation of the entire brain that critics had long dismissed as unrealistic.

The depth of the governance issues are exemplified by this statement in the report, which refers to the project’s de facto leader, Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “The co-ordinating scientist … is not only a member of all decision-making, executive and management bodies within the HBP, but also chairs them and supervises the administrative processes supporting these bodies. Furthermore, he is a member of all the advisory boards and reports to them at the same time. In addition, he appoints the members of the management team, and leads the operational project management.”

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