platformsThe European Human Brain Project seems to be running into problems. This Guardian report notes that an open letter of protest has been published by 170 unhappy neuroscientists. They are seeking to influence and extend a review that is due, hoping they can get a change of direction. I don’t know a great deal about the relevant EU bureaucracy, but I should think the letter-writers’ chances of success are small, not least because in Henry Markram they’re up against a project leader who is determined, resourceful, and not lacking support of his own. There’s a response to the letter here.

It is a little hard to work out exactly what the disagreement is about; the Guardian seems to smoosh together the current objections of former insiders with the criticisms of those who thought the project was radically premature in the first place. I find myself trying to work out what the protestors want, from Markram’s disparaging remarks about them, rather the way we have to reconstruct some ancient heresies from the rebuttals of the authorities, the only place where details survive.

We’re told the disagreement is between those who study behaviour at a high level and the project leaders who want to build simulations from the bottom up. In particular some cognitive neuroscience projects have been ‘demoted’ to partner status. People say the project has been turned into a technology one: Markram says it always was:  he suggests that piling up more data is useless and that instead he’s doing an ICT project which will provide a platform for integrating the data, and that it’s all coming out of an ICT budget anyway.

Us naive outsiders had picked up the impression that the project had a single clear goal; a working simulation of a whole human brain. That is sort of still there, but reading the response it seems to be a pretty distant aspiration. Apparently a mouse brain is going to be done first, but even that is a way off; it’s all about the platforms. Earlier documents suggest there will actually be six platforms, only one of which is about brain simulation; the others are neuroinformatics, high performance computing, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing, and neurorobotics – fascinating subjects. The implicit suggestion is that this kind of science can’t be done properly just by working in labs and publishing papers, it requires advanced platforms in which research can be integrated. Really? Speaking as a professional bureaucrat myself, I have to say frankly that that sounds uncommonly like the high-grade bollocks emitted by a project leader who has more money than he knows what to do with. The EU in particular is all about establishing unwanted frameworks and common platforms which lie dead in drawers forever after. If people want to share findings, publishing papers is fine (alright, not flawless). If it’s about doing actual research, having all the projects captured by a common platform which might embody common errors and common weaknesses doesn’t sound like a good idea at all. My brain doesn’t know, but my gut says the platforms won’t be much use.

Let’s be honest, I don’t really know what’s going on, but if one were cynical one might suppose that the success of the Human Genome Project made the authorities open to other grand projects, and one on the brain hit the spot. The problem is that we knew what a map of the genome would be like, and we pretty much knew it could be done and how. We don’t have a similarly clear idea relating to the brain. However, the concept was appealing enough to attract a big pot of money, both in the EU and then in the US (an even bigger pot). The people who got control of these pots cannot deliver anything like the map of the human genome, but they can buy in the support of fund-hungry researchers by disbursing some of the gold while keeping the politicians and bureaucrats happy by wrapping everything in the afore-mentioned bollocks. The authors of the protest letter perhaps ought to be criticising the whole idea, but really they’re just upset about being left out. The deeper sceptics who always said the project was premature – though they may have thought they were talking about brain simulation, not a set of integrative platforms – were probably right; but there’s no money in that.

Grand projects like this are probably rarely the best way to control research funding, but they do get funding. Maybe something good somewhere will accidentally get the help it needs; meanwhile we’ll be getting some really great European platforms.


  1. 1. Hunt says:

    Maybe I’m too much of a Keynesian to marshal much of an objection to big science projects like this, even if they’re mostly technological. If you can boost the economy by digging a hole and filling it back in, and you’re not throwing billions at a war effort, you’re good to go! Let’s face it, much of it will be a waste, but some of it will probably hit gold. I do agree with Markram’s opinion that at some point, you just have to go for it, build platforms and models and start simulating stuff. Otherwise we’ll forever be stuck at the tree level and never see the forest.
    It’s largely analogous to Venter’s accomplishment in simulating cell biology, except that we’ve known roughly what functions a cell performs for over a hundred years. What if we didn’t, and the very first real insight came when Venter first ran his simulation?

  2. 2. Vicente says:

    Santiago Ramón y Cajal, with very scarce resources, did the most important progress in neuroscience ever. He wanted to know, he really wanted to know. I wonder how many among this bunch of public grants eaters really want to know. This is the problem.

    Probably, if a sufficiently big number of researchers in this project were really interested in their job (beginning with the boss), and really wanted to know, none of these concerns would have been raised.

    Teaming is a social self organising process that naturally happens when a common goal has been identified. It can’t be forced, as Peter very wisely points out The EU in particular is all about establishing unwanted frameworks and common platforms which lie dead in drawers forever after

    I don’t question that the project would have required a much more realistic planning and work programme, but once is there and running, those that wrote the letter, and those that answered to it, should be really ashamed, that many citizens, taxpayers, the ones that pay for this (not the European Commission that also gets paid for this), and work very hard everyday, in very nasty jobs with no white coats, are making this effort, for them not being able to take advantage (adapting as needed) and give something in return. This applies to everyone living on public money, beginning with the very well paid European Commission officers.

    Instead of having some nice an interesting result produced by the project, we have this.

    Maybe the Human Brain Project should start by taking on board those brains worthy of participating in it.

    So sad.

  3. 3. Callan S. says:

    It could be called a war effort, Hunt.

    If you think of the various ways law and law enforcement has trouble keeping up with technology – and here we are, working out the shady back alleys of the mind itself.

  4. 4. john davey says:

    As I understand it, modelling the nematode worm (300 neurons) has so far proved elusive. Even with masses of computational power, nematode worms have proved complicated to deal with – never mind much more complex biological systems such as bees (1,000,000).

    You have to walk before you can crawl. Let’s face it, we’re 30/40 years off even getting a start. The real problem is not a lack of computing power, it’s the lack of a theory. Nobody knows where to start. There’s also probably a tad more sophistication to the brain than the current hand-wavy ‘its all electrical signals and seratonin’ approach.

    Still, it’s much better to look at the stuff of which brains are made than ‘modelling’ minds in computer software, which is as likely to produce thinking as meteorological software is to make you wet.

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