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No single roadmap for understanding the human brain


The European Commission has received an open letter from a number of scientists expressing concerns about the EU's Human Brain Project, its scope and governance.

As a public research funding agency, we take all such signals seriously. We welcome debate. And we will do our best to address concerns, while bearing in mind that, overall, Brain Science is, in Europe as in the world, an increasingly diverse and very big community, with tens of thousands of actors in neuroscience alone.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) addresses what is arguably in the Top Ten unknowns facing Mankind. Understanding better our human brain is one of the greatest challenges of our century; but unlocking its mysteries is far from easy.

The HBP supported since last year by the Commission is an ambitious and innovative initiative. It represents a €1 billion investment over the 10 next years, selected as the best among several proposals to offer scientific and technological excellence, sound implementation, and the greatest value and impact on science, technology, the society and the economy.

The central aim is to build a world-class experimental facility to study the structure and functions of the human brain. This new information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure will integrate neuroscience data and will be used to design brain-computer models to understand and simulate the human brain.

This endeavour brings together many different research communities – notably in neuroscience, computing and medicine. Each of them is vital to the project and each should be part of it. The Commission will continue to engage with all those communities. We also want all professional brain communities as well as civil society brain-focussed groups to be part of the broader eco-system for this mega-project.

The exact scope of the project is a matter for the project itself, and that is the subject of the current public debate. In parallel, the HBP's own proposal for a Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA) with the Commission is currently being evaluated by high-level and independent experts. It outlines how the project could be implemented under Horizon 2020. The evaluation results are expected in September.

We expect recommendations on the proposed structure of the partnership – that is, the balance between the core project and a number of partnering projects – as well as on the governance of the overall initiative. This will address therefore the issue of the most effective integration of the cognitive neuroscience community in HBP's activities.

I am pretty confident that the next months will see a satisfactory approach even on the issues raised by the critics of the current project plans. That will in turn unlock the HBP's ring-fenced budget in Horizon 2020. While HBP does not use resources dedicated to such as the European Research Council or the health "societal challenge", which give parallel support to neurosciences, I am also confident that HBP will complement such programmes and projects, at EU and at Member State level.

In parallel with assessing the HBP in detail, we are currently working on the details of collaboration with national research funding agencies. We also aim at more coordination and efficiency beyond our continent. Collaboration with the very ambitious U.S. BRAIN Initiative is on the right track; this is a global challenge which will benefit from a global approach.

In short, at this stage of the definition of the HBP in detail, it is helpful to have all views out in the open: but we must now wait and see for some weeks. Setting up such ground-breaking projects is not an easy task: researchers have to play their part to meet the challenge.

Obstacles will come along the path, but at the end there are huge potential benefits for our society, our economy and for science.

Robert Madelin's picture
Published in DSM blog


Marco Masi's picture

It will end like the Human Genome Project which, contrary to popular belief, was not successful as expected. Again we will map everything, but we will not understand much. Not to say about the practical applications that will be disappointing.

Josh Trutt's picture

The Human Genome Project was spectacularly successful:
... and pays dividends that increase each year exponentially. A map is necessary at some point, whether before or after we acquire more detailed knowledge of all the tiny side-roads and villages. We are at the point where, towards the end of the HBP time-frame, high-speed computing will have progressed just far enough to allow that map. This is a wonderful overlap of timing between Dr Markram's work (which had progressed far enough to show that this project is viable), technology, and EU funding. It may be an added benefit that the US is taking on the BRAIN initiative simultaneously , and one hopes the HBP will benefit from that as well, and vice-versa.

Dida Dida's picture

This project will definately pays dividends to Markham team that include their suppliers (good job IBM!) and lobbyist. The bigger is amount the less significant looks percentage for all that "commision fees" and yes, you don't need to collect them from tens or hundreds sources but just one. Markham shows that he is in the first place a good businessman. It's not easy to convince anyone to give you 1 billion EUR. Scientists who signed a letter could learn that is a "business as usual..." for someone and that indeed include famous "... no hard fellings". For me was interesting to see a change in Markham rethoric after he won a contract. Before that you can head nice promises but after he become "more down to earth" with prognosis.

A great thing is that once again tax payers who will finance this enterprise were not asking anything. Of course, who they are anyone, they are "not experts" (and not to say stupid) and we know how democracy works (see you next time near stone age ballot box!). This time it seems that we have some experts who rise they voice against this project. I do know that they have a vested interest to do that since funds are limited. Anyway since the whole field of cognitive and neuroscience are still full of guess work, you should not be a world class expert to realize that hundred (!) 10Mil EUR has better chance to got some answers then just one.

But, Markham again showed once again that he is a top player: his answer (actually: Richard Frackowiak, co-director of the HBP) is that their fellow experts is against new paradigm! Wow! Just to remind you: Markham team wants to sell us that something what they cannot understand "in vivo" (or "in vitro") MUST be possible to grasp "in silico". Are we talking here about human beings, transhumans or eventually robots?