Row over IT focus of Europe's brain project prompts 280 scientists to threaten a boycott

When FierceBiotechIT reported on Europe's Human Brain Project late last month, the team behind the program was trying to figure out how to incentivize researchers to share data. Now they face a more fundamental problem: getting researchers to take part in any capacity. At the time of writing, 280 scientists have signed an open letter threatening to boycott the project.

The letter lays bare tensions that have existed since the early days of the initiative. Some of the complaints relate to how the project is being managed--notably the way in which one subproject was dropped--but the scientists who signed the letter have more fundamental concerns about exactly what Europe is trying to achieve with its €1 billion ($1.4 billion) budget. The headline objective is to create a computer simulation of the human brain, a goal University College London's computational neuroscience director Peter Dayan called "radically premature" in an interview with The Guardian.

With some scientists thinking the goal is ambitious at best, they have looked to subprojects to ensure that the project yields tangible benefits even if it falls short of its big objective. But the open letter criticizes the project for being too narrow from the start and becoming more so in a recent refocusing. The team behind the project argues that it will deliver a range of benefits, particularly by giving neuroscientists the tools to manage and analyze the ever-larger data sets being generated by researchers.

Henry Markram, head of the Human Brain Project

"The rationale of the Human Brain Project is a plan for data: what do we do with all this data? This is a very exciting [information computer technology] project that will bring completely new tools and capabilities to all of neuroscience. It is not a general neuroscience funding source for more of the same research," Henry Markram, head of the Human Brain Project, said. In calling the initiative an ICT project, Markram hit upon one of the problems some people have with the project.

"There is a danger that Europe thinks it is investing in a big neuroscience project here, but it's not. It's an IT project. They need to widen the scope and take advantage of the expertise we have in neuroscience," Geneva University's Alexandre Pouget said.

- read the Guardian article
- check out ScienceInsider's take
- get more in Nature's coverage
- here's the letter