18 Jul 2014 Brussels - The European Commission has received an open letter from a number of scientists expressing concerns about the EU's Human Brain Project, its scope and governance. The European Commission (EC) expressed the intention to take critical signals seriously and to welcome debate. The EC will try to address concerns, while bearing in mind that, overall, Brain Science is, in Europe as in the world, an increasingly diverse and very big community, with tens of thousands of actors in neuroscience alone.
The scientists who have signed the "Open message to the European Commission concerning the Human Brain Project" support the contents of the open letter which in summary states that: "Neuroscience advances our understanding of normal and pathological brain function, offering potentially enormous benefits to society. It is, therefore, critical to Europe. The Human Brain Project (HBP), sponsored by the European Commission (EC), was meant to forward this mission. However, due in great part to its narrow focus, it has been highly controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community and even within the consortium, resulting in on-going losses of members."
"The HBP is now scheduled for review and we wish to draw the attention of the EC to these problems. We believe the HBP is not a well conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience. We are particularly concerned about the plan to tie a substantial portion European member states' neuroscience funding to the HBP through so-called 'partnering projects'. We call for the EC to go beyond the strict requirements of the upcoming review, to demand transparency and accountability and, if necessary, change the structure of the HBP's governance and supervision to correct their shortcomings."
"Failing that we call for the EC to redirect the HBP funding to smaller investigator-driven neuroscience grants. We stand fully behind a strong and united European neuroscience strategy and we pledge not to seek funding through HBP partnering projects that would compromise that mission."
Robert Madelin, Director-General of DG Connect at the EC, officially responded to the open letter and stated that the Human Brain Project (HBP) addresses what is arguably in the Top Ten unknowns facing Mankind. Understanding better our human brain is one of the greatest challenges of our century; but unlocking its mysteries is far from easy.
The HBP supported since last year by the Commission is an ambitious and innovative initiative. It represents a 1 billion euro investment over the 10 next years, selected as the best among several proposals to offer scientific and technological excellence, sound implementation, and the greatest value and impact on science, technology, the society and the economy.
The central aim is to build a world-class experimental facility to study the structure and functions of the human brain. This new information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure will integrate neuroscience data and will be used to design brain-computer models to understand and simulate the human brain.
This endeavour brings together many different research communities - notably in neuroscience, computing and medicine. Each of them is vital to the project and each should be part of it. The Commission will continue to engage with all those communities.
Robert Madelin wrote that the European Commission also wants all professional brain communities as well as civil society brain-focussed groups to be part of the broader eco-system for this mega-project.
The exact scope of the project is a matter for the project itself, and that is the subject of the current public debate. In parallel, the HBP's own proposal for a Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA) with the Commission is currently being evaluated by high-level and independent experts. It outlines how the project could be implemented under Horizon 2020. The evaluation results are expected in September.
Robert Madelin also said that the EC expects recommendations on the proposed structure of the partnership - that is, the balance between the core project and a number of partnering projects - as well as on the governance of the overall initiative. This will address therefore the issue of the most effective integration of the cognitive neuroscience community in HBP's activities.
Robert Madelin said to be pretty confident that the next months will see a satisfactory approach even on the issues raised by the critics of the current project plans. That will in turn unlock the HBP's ring-fenced budget in Horizon 2020. While HBP does not use resources dedicated to such as the European Research Council or the health "societal challenge", which give parallel support to neurosciences, Robert Madelin is also confident that HBP will complement such programmes and projects, at EU and at Member State level.
In parallel with assessing the HBP in detail, the EC is currently working on the details of collaboration with national research funding agencies. The EC also aims at more co-ordination and efficiency beyond the European continent. Collaboration with the very ambitious U.S. BRAIN Initiative is on the right track; this is a global challenge which will benefit from a global approach.
In short, at this stage of the definition of the HBP in detail, it is helpful to have all views out in the open: but Robert Madelin urged to now wait and see for some weeks. Setting up such ground-breaking projects is not an easy task: researchers have to play their part to meet the challenge.
Obstacles will come along the path, but at the end there are huge potential benefits for our society, our economy and for science, Robert Madelin concluded.