Two years in, a $1-billion-plus effort to simulate the human brain is in disarray. Was it poor management, or is something fundamentally wrong with Big Science? By Stefan Theil on October 1, 2015
In 2013 the European Commission awarded neuroscientist Henry Markram $1.3 billion to pursue an audacious goal: building a simulation of the human brain.
Markram’s initiative, the Human Brain Project (HBP), is now in disarray. Critics blame HBP management and the project’s unreasonably ambitious goals.
The Human Brain Project created a deep, public schism among Europe’s neuroscientists. A July 2014 open letter attacking the HBP’s science and organization quickly gathered more than 800 signatures from scientists. This past March, with the signatories threatening a boycott of what was supposed to be a Europe-wide collaboration, Markram initiated a mediation process to address the critics’ claims. A committee of 27 scientists reviewed both sides’ arguments, and, with the exception of two dissenters, the group agreed, almost point by point, with the critics.
In their 53-page report, the mediators called for a massive overhaul of the HBP, including a new management structure and change in scientific focus. The HBP is now undergoing a major reorganization, and the project’s future shape and direction are in flux. Few of the E.U. member states, whose research ministries and other institutions were expected to contribute $570 million to the overall budget, have yet made any commitments, which could affect the project’s ambitious scope and timeline.
Most accounts of this high-profile project gone awry have focused on Markram and his management style, but that is only part of the story. By all accounts, Markram is earnestly trying to do good science. And as much dysfunction as there has been around the HBP’s Swiss headquarters, the ultimate source of the problem is located some 300 miles to the north, in Brussels. There, at the seat of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, a system of Big Science funding that marries politics with scientific objectives, allows little transparency and exercises insufficient control has enabled the mess that the HBP has become. “The real problem is not the HBP but the decision-making process at the E.U.,” says Andreas Herz, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and a member of the mediation committee.
So far the U.S.’s BRAIN Initiative has fared much better than the HBP. Unveiled by President Barack Obama in April 2013 as “the next great American project,” the initiative was met by a similar wave of skepticism at the start. Just as in Europe, many U.S. neuroscientists worried that the BRAIN Initiative was poorly conceived and would siphon funding away from other neuroscience research to strive for nebulous, possibly unattainable goals.
But instead of proceeding with closed-door panels and confidential reviews, the nimh reacted to the criticism by putting the initiative on hold and engaging the neuroscience community. The agency named a panel of 15 leading brain experts and, in a series of public workshops, let the scientists define the project. A year of deliberations produced an ambitious, interdisciplinary program to develop new technological tools that will enable researchers to better monitor, measure and stimulate the brain. The endeavor brings together neuroscientists with nanotechnology specialists and materials engineers to solve issues such as applying electrical stimulus to very small groups of neurons, which may make it possible to treat brain conditions with vastly improved precision.
The key difference between Europe’s HBP and the U.S.’s BRAIN Initiative is that the latter does not depend on a single scientific vision. Instead many teams will compete for grants and lead innovation into different, unplanned directions. Competition is happening via the nimh’s traditional peer-review process, which prevents the conflicts of interest that plagued decision making at the HBP. Peer review is not perfect—it tends to favor known scientific paradigms—and American science funding has plenty of problems of its own. But the BRAIN Initiative’s more competitive and transparent decision making is far removed from the political black box in Brussels that produced the HBP.
Since accepting the mediation report’s criticism, the HBP is undergoing a radical overhaul—and that may yet turn it into a success. Ebell says the project is building a new management structure that will no longer concentrate so much power with Markram and his closest associates. There will be new bodies for independent oversight. A key subproject in cognitive neuroscience, whose removal from the core research program accelerated the attacks against the HBP last year, has been reinstated. A more open, competitive process for collaborative projects to access HBP funding is also in the works. From now on, Ebell says, every group involved in the consortium, including Markram’s, will have to reapply for funding every two years.
The project is also focusing more tightly on data tools and software that are not exclusively aimed at simulating the brain. Although the mediators criticized the HBP for raising “unrealistic expectations” with regard to understanding the brain and treating its diseases, resulting in a “loss of scientific credibility,” even critics such as Dayan and Mainen fully support the project’s parallel goals of delivering computational tools, data integration and mathematical models for neurological research.
The BRAIN Initiative has a good chance of succeeding because despite its packaging as a moon shot–style megaproject, it is not so much Big Science as a model of distributed innovation under a central funding umbrella, with rules that encourage collaboration. The initiative’s megaproject label is, perhaps, just clever PR to raise funds and galvanize support. “When I talk to members of Congress, they always want to know what the new idea is,” Insel says. “They don’t want to spend money on more of the same.” Media coverage also flocks to big new ideas. The result is that a Big Science project—or one packaged as such—is often an easier sell to politicians, their constituents and journalists. “There is a zeitgeist now of Big Science being more effective,” says Zachary Mainen, head of systems neuroscience at the Lisbon-based Champalimaud Foundation and co-organizer of the open letter against the HBP. “But that doesn’t mean you have to eliminate competition.”