Wolfgang Marquardt

Wolfgang Marquardt

Jülich Research Center

Mediators propose CERN-like organization for Human Brain Project

The Human Brain Project (HBP) should be remade into an international organization modeled on CERN or the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EPFL) in Heidelberg, says a panel formed to unite the neuroscience community behind the controversial, billion-euro project.

The panel, commissioned by HBP's board of directors, proposes a series of governance and management changes that include how to avoid potential conflicts of interest. It also comes to the aid of the field of cognitive neuroscience, which HBP management had proposed cutting last year.

The full report of the panel, chaired by Wolfgang Marquardt, director of the Jülich Research Center in Düren, Germany, has been submitted to HBP's board of directors, and the Jülich center sent a summary to journalists yesterday. Last Friday, the European Commission published a summary of the findings and recommendations of a separate review panel that also advocates a range of reforms.

As one of the European Commission's two flagship projects, HBP is set to receive up to €1 billion in funding from the European Union and national governments. HBP's board of directors turned to Marquardt after an open letter published last year—which as of today has been signed by almost 800 scientists—revealed deep divisions within the neuroscience community over the project.

Marquardt enlisted some 30 scientists and research administrators from around the world for meetings lasting a total of 5 or 6 days. The group included outspoken critics as well as several members of HBP's board of directors, he says—but not Henry Markram, the project's controversial founder and leader. The panel agreed quickly on the general direction of the recommendations, he says, but hammering out the final text took many iterations. Some members opposed the final report because they disagreed with details, he adds.

Among the panel's key recommendations:

  • HBP should be run by a new, independent organization formed by the project's main contributors, including EPFL. One reason is the project’s massive computing platforms. "After HBP is finished, you want to be sure that those are maintained, expanded, and made available to the research community in a professional and sustainable way,” Marquardt says. “You're much better off if you make that an international responsibility." Last week, HBP's Philippe Gillet told ScienceInsider that the project is already working on that transformation.

  • Research, scientific strategy development, project management, and project monitoring should be separated and run by different bodies. People should not serve on panels whose decisions affect a project they work on, and external experts should be tapped for budget decisions and quality assurance. ("Those are very fundamental principles of how you run a big, complex organization like this," Marquardt says.)

  • The scientific program should set priorities, and a major cognitive neuroscience subproject that HBP had proposed ending last year—giving rise to the open letter—should be retained and strengthened; it's a cross-cutting discipline that links various subprojects and should receive at least 10% of HBP's research budget, Marquardt says.

  •  HBP should "maintain a constructive scientific discourse with the scientific communities and the general public." It should also refrain from making unrealistic promises about curing diseases or predicting the brain's behavior, Marquardt says.

Marquardt declined to discuss why HBP started off on the wrong foot. "This is something for historians of science or science sociologists," he says. "It's much more important to look forward. The project now has to take action and implement the recommendations."

HBP's board of directors is expected to vote on the recommendations at a meeting on 17 to 18 March. The full report will be made public at that time.