Nearly 200 scientists at deadline have threatened to boycott the European Commission’s Human Brain Project (HBP), contending that the 10-year €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) mega-initiative was not being properly managed and thus would not succeed in its ambitious goal of simulating the inner workings of the human brain.

The researchers, signing an online “open message” sent today to the EC, pledged not to apply for HBP partnering projects—and promised as well to urge their colleagues to join them in that commitment—absent dramatic changes in the project’s approaches to science and management.

“We wish to express the view that the HBP is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed,” according to the open message, which as of 10 am EDT had been signed by 192 researchers. “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.”

HBP was launched last year after the EC agreed to create the world's largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the human brain. HBP was envisioned to use the advanced brain model to study how the human brain works, and ultimately to develop personalized treatments for neurological and related diseases. The project is led by professor Henry Markram of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and initially involved scientists from 87 institutions in 23 countries, of which 16 were in Europe.

HBP's website lists 189 researchers, 113 partner institutions, and 21 “collaborating partner” institutions.

The 87 included four U.S. institutions: the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; the Allen Institute for Brain Research, the University of California Los Angeles and Yale University. At deadline, a single US researcher had signed the open message—Konrad Kording, Ph.D., of Northwestern University.

Last month, Markram and HBP submitted for EC review their Framework Proposal Agreement (FPA) for the second round of funding for the Project. The FPA removed an entire neuroscience subproject —and with it the 18 research laboratories set to work on that portion of the Project.

The FPA also proposed more basic-science research, such as the study of individual neurons—changes that angered cognitive scientists, and according to the open message resulted in further withdrawals of researchers and the resignation of one member of the internal scientific advisory board.

“The main apparent goal of building the capacity to construct a larger-scale simulation of the human brain is radically premature,” Peter Dayan, director of the computational neuroscience unit at University College London, told the Guardian. “We are left with a project that can't but fail from a scientific perspective. It is a waste of money, it will suck out funds from valuable neuroscience research, and would leave the public, who fund this work, justifiably upset.”

HBP is also intent on proceeding with its own computer model of the brain’s full-scale workings. The model would need “exascale” computers 1,000 times the power of today’s supercomputers, but which are not expected to be ready until 2019. Sean Hill, co-leader of the Human Brain Project’s neuroinformatics research, told Bloomberg last month that HBP was set to procure its own exascale computer by 2023.

EC is now reviewing the project’s initial ramp-up phase as well as the FPA. The results will determine whether the EC proceeds with its plan to award €50 million ($68 million) annually for HBP’s core project, plus another €50 million ($68 million) per year in “partnering projects” provided largely by the European member states’ funding bodies.

“We believe that a review will show that there are substantial failures to meet these criteria, especially concerning the quality of the governance demonstrated and the lack of flexibility and openness of the consortium,” the researchers stated in their open message.

The scientists also proposed changes to the conduct of the EC review that would allow for an overhaul of HBP. Specifically: 

  • Panel composition: The review should be conducted by a panel of “highly regarded members of the scientific community whose views reflect the diversity of approaches within neuroscience.”
  • Transparency: Review panel members’ identities should be disclosed and the goals, procedures and output of the review process should be public.
  • Independence: Members of the panel should not be involved in the development of, advocacy for, or governance of the HBP; they should provide a signed disclosure of any significant funding or scientific relationships to the HBP.
  • Future of HBP: The researchers also want the review panel to make binding recommendations on continuing HBP and its subprojects, then create a transparent process for formulating calls for partnering projects, then reviewing applications “such that these reflect community input, are coordinated with the core but are independent of the core administration.”
  • FET implementation: The review panel should assess whether the quality of HMP’s governance and management meets standards of the EC’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship competition, including whether the consortium encourages member institutions to complement each other, exploit synergies, and enhance regional, national, European and international research programs.

Last month, Hill said HMP was working to encourage more sharing of data within the consortium through creation of a scoring system for grants that would award additional funding to member institutions shown to share more data.

The researchers also recommended one or more members of the review panel should continue serving as the core of an external steering committee for the period of the funding under review. These continuing members should receive no funding from HBP. 

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