By Bio-IT World Staff
July 10, 2014 | Today, the leadership of the Human Brain Project circulated a document responding to this Monday's open letter to the European Commission, in which neuroscientists aired concerns about the aims and decision-making processes behind the HBP. (See: "Human Brain Project Faces Growing Skepticism from Neuroscientists.") In their reply, HBP members state that "we recognize that the signatories have important concerns about the project," but that "we feel that [the letter] divides rather than unifies our efforts to understand the brain."
The response begins by reiterating the central goal of the HBP, to create a computer simulation of the brain from the scale of individual neurons to the entire structure of the brain — an ambition described as a "critical missing layer" in neuroscience that could help researchers integrate the huge amounts of data already being collected on cellular and synaptic activity. The most substantive point in the response addresses the question of whether this simulation is unrealistic and doomed to fail. "We share this uncertainty," write the HBP members. "However we contend that no one really knows how much neuroscience data is currently available because it has never been organized, and that no one even knows how much data is needed to begin such an endeavor." They defend having an ambitious, even overly ambitious, core project as a means to force scientists to communicate more closely, develop new computing technologies, and gain a clearer sense of how much is already known.
The response also speaks to a perceived sidelining of cognitive science as the core project has taken shape. While the HBP concedes that cognitive neuroscientists were shifted from the core project to partnering groups, the HBP claims that once IT models of the brain can be put in place, "cognitive and behavioural neuroscience will become the most significant component of neuroscience in HBP over the course of the project."
Responses to smaller, but more tangible, complaints in the open letter are so far less decisive. The open letter worried about a lack of transparency in how the HBP is being directed; the response reiterates the current governing process, by which a panel of experts will meet every 12 months to assess whether milestones have been met, but does not commit to suggested changes like a transparent process for calling for and reviewing partnering projects. The open letter fretted that European countries would see neuroscience funding diverted more and more to institutions connected with the HBP, given the mandate that countries contribute €50 million a year for partnering projects; the response states that European researchers "all have a fair opportunity to participate in the HBP through the Partnering Projects," but does not refute that avenues may be closed to researchers who choose not to apply for partnering projects.
Ultimately, it will be up to the European Commission to decide whether the review process, funding, or governance of the HBP should be changed, during its pending first evaluation of the project. Members of the HBP are hoping that their unified vision for European neuroscience will remain convincing to the Commission, as it weighs the concerns being expressed more and more openly by dissenting scientists. "The HBP aims to unify by building technologies that everyone, including the signatories of the open letter, finds useful," the HBP's response concludes. "Our strongest hope is that we can work together."
Meanwhile, signatories to the open letter of concern have more than tripled since its appearance on Monday; at the time of writing, 548 neuroscientists have pledged not to apply for funding associated with the HBP. The HBP's full response can be read at www.humanbrainproject.eu.