Why are 600 brain scientists protesting a huge brain research study?

Why are 600 brain scientists protesting a huge brain research study?
It will be years before we really understand what's going on in his head: A 5 1/2-year-old chimpanzee named Ayumu performs a memory test. (Associated Press)

You don't often see scientific researchers turning up their noses at nearly a billion and a half dollars in government funding. Still more rarely will the elite of a research field threaten to boycott a huge international project in their field en masse.

But that seems to be happening with the Human Brain Project, an ambitious project to map the activity of the brain using new -- and thus far uninvented -- technologies. The project was the topic of an extraordinary "open message" to the European Commission, its sponsor, signed by 580 prominent neuroscientists.


"The HBP is not on course," they wrote. "We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain." Unless its management and goals are restructured, they said, they would refuse to apply for HBP grants.

The HBP is being funded by the European Union and its member nations to the tune of 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) over 10 years. It resembles, with some crucial differences, a 12-year, $4.5-billion U.S. initiative called Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

BRAIN hasn't elicited the threat of a mass boycott like the EU study, but it has come under criticism itself -- that it's an unfocused, PR-driven Big Science project unlikely to yield the results its backers promise.

None of this means that either project is necessarily unworthy or that research programs conceived on an ambitious scale aren't worthwhile. Both have been compared with the Human Genome Project, which drove important advances in the field of genomics that are still being mined.

Both are aimed at delving into the brain's workings at a cellular level, examining the synapses that, tied together by the tens of thousands or more, create brain function. The supporters of BRAIN noted, in the 2012 article that served as the project's manifesto, that its goal would be to address "our ignorance of the brain's microcircuitry."

They acknowledged that this would involve developing new technologies for observing, imaging and recording the activities of neuronal circuits. And they made clear that this was a long-term project -- 10 years to image the entire brain of the fruit fly, 15 years for a mouse, and only then to "proceed toward primates." In announcing the program, however, the NIH depicted it as a campaign to find cures for human neurological diseases, slathering it in a thick coat of hype.

The HBP is even more oriented toward technology -- indeed, by some measures it's less a project in neuroscience than in information technology.

To some extent the problem with both projects can be traced to the bureaucratization of Big Science, which may be inevitable when money on this scale is thrown at a research scheme conceived from the top down.

Researchers working on basic science become concerned that resources will be shifted from their labs to projects in the mainstream of the flagship program; those pursuing novel ideas fear they'll be overlooked because they can't be easily slotted into the main program.

The same issues helped sink the Superconducting Super Collider, a multi-billion-dollar particle accelerator that the U.S. was planning to build in Texas in the early 1990s. The project was to be a showpiece of high-energy physics, which prompted researchers in other areas of physics, not to mention other sciences, to wonder what would be left for them. Congress killed the SSC in 1993.

These issues become especially sharp when an enormously costly initiative is dropped on an agency already facing a budget squeeze. Scientists dread that research funding at NIH will be a zero-sum game, with money taken from ongoing projects to feed BRAIN. There isn't much give in the national research budget, they say: "Right now the community is already so strapped we're at the breaking point," one neuroscientist told Science in 2013, when BRAIN was announced.

In Europe, similar fears have combined with complaints about the management of the HBP by its conceiver and leader, Swiss neuroscientist Henry Markram. The protest was triggered by the decision by Markram and the project's board to cut out one particular French project, which the protesters say led to the elimination of 18 labs from the HBP.

Markram may not have helped things when he dismissed the protesters as being out of step with HBP's vision. As Science reported Friday: "Markram says the cognitive neuroscientists involved 'just want to do the same thing they have been doing,' with HBP money, without embracing the broader concept. HBP is 'a methodological paradigm shift, and it's a very exciting one, but not for everybody who does this sort of traditional individual research in the lab,' he says."

The path of research is never smooth when so many billions of dollars are at stake, but even working out the controversies will be a long-term project -- the European Commission won't give the HBP its first annual review until January. But the goals of both these projects are worth pursuing -- satisfying human curiosity about this most important organ by understanding how it makes us curious.

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