An independent committee set up to probe a dispute over Europe's $1 billion Human Brain Project (HBP) has sided with critics of the initiative. The outcome leaves the fate of HBP and its ambitious and much-criticized plan to simulate the brain using a supercomputer in doubt.
Like many Big Science projects, HBP has been dogged by arguments over its scope and organization since day one and the disagreements escalated into a full-blown revolt last summer. The revolt took the form of an open letter from hundreds of researchers who committed to boycotting HBP unless their concerns about its scientific direction and autocratic management were addressed. An independent committee tasked with investigating the dispute has ruled the critics of HBP have a point, both with regard to the scope of project and how it is run.
Reaching a consensus on the ambitions of the initiative is likely to prove difficult. While critics view HBP's central goal of simulating the human brain as being "radically premature," advocates of its ambitions argue backing away from the challenge will turn a "visionary project into an average one." The committee sided with the critics. In its five scientific recommendations, the committee calls for HBP to "define a unique set of concrete and achievable long-term objectives" and reintegrate work related to cognitive and systems neurosciences, topics that were controversially dropped last year.
The autocratic management that put many researchers' hackles up is illustrated in the committee report through a description of the roles and responsibilities of coordinating scientist Henry Markram. "[He] 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," the committee wrote. Markram also appoints the management teams and leads project management.