Science & Environment

EC 'confident' in human brain project

brain Image copyright SCI-COMM STUDIOS / SPL

The European Commission has responded to criticism of its billion-euro Human Brain Project, declaring confidence that objections will be satisfied.

The statement also defends the ability of the project to set its own scope, which critics have said is too narrow.

But it says new recommendations for management of the HBP and the balance between its core and partner projects (both contentious issues) are expected in September.

Critics cautiously welcomed the reply.

Under the heading "no single roadmap for understanding the human brain", Robert Madelin (the relevant director-general within the EC) responded directly to last week's open letter.

"As a public funding agency, we take all such signals seriously," he wrote. "We welcome debate."

Cautious optimism

Responding to the concern that the HBP concentrates too exclusively on simulations of the brain, Mr Madelin stated, "The exact scope of the project is a matter for the project itself."

He also addressed the sidelining of cognitive neuroscientists, who study the brain from a more "top-down", function-based perspective than the "bottom-up" cell and network modelling that is at the heart of the HBP.

This type of work was recently "repositioned" outside the core of the project.

As part of a review of the project's Framework Partnership Agreement, a necessary hurdle to unlock funding from within Horizon 2020, the EC statement suggested there will be recommendations on "the balance between the core project and a number of partnering projects" - presumably including cognitive work.

That review, due in September, should also address "the governance of the overall initiative" and is being conducted "by high-level and independent experts", wrote Mr Madelin.

The project's critics had demanded a review by top neuroscientists who are not associated with the HBP.

Dr Zachary Mainen, one of the principal organisers of the protest letter, told the BBC he was "cautiously optimistic", while noting a lack of specific commitments in the EC's response.

"We appreciate the commission's recognition of our concerns and of the importance of neuroscience and a diversity of approaches," he said. "We look forward to working with the commission in the coming weeks and months."

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