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The Human Brain Project (HBP), a humongous, controversial research project backed by the European Union, must reform to stay on course, a review panel has recommended—and it must do so fast. A summary of the panel's report, published today by the European Commission, says a series of "corrective actions" needs to be taken in HBP's governance, the way it collaborates, and its communication.
The report doesn't directly address last year's revolt against HBP by a group of European neuroscientists, but appears to address several of their concerns. "We are very pleased, because it's confirming the problems that we have been pointing out," says computational neuroscientist Alexandre Pouget of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, one of the critics. "They are making the exact same points we have made."
But Philippe Gillet, chairman of the HBP's board of directors, says the review isn't unusually critical and that HBP welcomes the suggestions. "We are ranked as a good project, but [the review panel] gives us some tasks," Gillet says. "You never get a perfect review in science."
The panel says HBP's governance must be changed "to ensure that decision making processes are simple, fair and transparent," and that various HBP subprojects must work together better. Key changes must be implemented by June 2015, according to the 5-page summary, which uses the words "as quickly as possible" or "as soon as possible" five times.
HBP, the brainchild of neuroscientist Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is one of two so-called flagship projects, chosen to receive up to €1 billion in funding from the European Commission and E.U. member states. HBP's management and priorities have come under fire, however, and some scientists have called its ultimate ambition to model the entire brain in computers unrealistic. In an open letter published last year, hundreds of neuroscientists threatened to boycott the project unless the European Commission stepped in to demand an overhaul.
Although the review panel wants to improve HBP's governance, it doesn't give concrete advice; that is expected to come from an independent mediation committee, set up after the rebellion and chaired by Wolfgang Marquardt of the Forschungszentrum Jülich, a research center in Germany. That group is expected to release its own report on HBP within a few weeks.
The review panel does say, however, that HBP must "better articulate its strategic goals" and "avoid at all costs creating unrealistic expectations.” That language is a clear nod to the project’s critics, Pouget says. "The reviewers have said: 'Stop saying unrealistic things; get real.' We're very happy with this," he says.
The panel also says the collaboration between the 13 subprojects must improve. Six of those focus on developing computing platforms and models, whereas four others will amass the experimental data and theories needed to feed them. But so far, "the HBP is not developing with the expected level of integration and the project controls in place are not adequate to achieve this aim," says the summary.
A source within the European Commission says that under E.U. rules, the commission can't release the full review or the names of the scientists who produced it. However, given the controversy and the international interest, the commission wanted at least a summary to be published, says the source, who adds that HBP agreed to this.
Gillet says that the review is "helpful," and that HBP is already making changes to address the panel's concerns. ("We're only 1 year old," he says.) On Tuesday, the project annouced that its three-member executive committee, which included Markram, has been dissolved; from now on, the 22-member board of directors as a whole will make the important decisions. Eventually, HBP wants to evolve into an international organization, Gillet says, modeled on CERN, the European Space Agency, or the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Three working groups will make recommendations on how to make that transformation, he adds.