Article by Michael Szollosy
In a bit of breaking news, a report by a review panel looking into the Human Brain Project (HBP) has determined that ‘corrective actions’ need to be taken in restructuring the communications and operations of the project. The HBP was set up to make new contributions to neuroscience, develop new treatments for brain disease and, most directly of interest to robotics, develop new computer technologies modelled on these new discoveries. In 2013 the HBP received €1.2 billion in EU funding under the Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship initiative, and includes 112 organisations in 24 different countries with 183 principle investigators working towards a number of very laudable objectives.
The European Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe last week published a summary of the panel’s findings following a review of the first year of the HBP. (EU rules dictate that the full report cannot be published, but amidst the controversy and high-stakes of FET flagship funding, the summary has been released.) While the report praises the progress made by a majority of the subprojects and the project’s education programme, it clearly states that ‘very significant efforts remain to be made, in terms of coordination and integration, for the HBP to become a truly large unified project’. A review was necessitated when, in July last year, over 100 scientists wrote an open letter criticising the project, both in terms of the science and the management, claiming that it was badly run and that its aims were too narrow. In anticipation of the report, the HBP voted in late February to change its own governance structure, taking the responsibilities of the three-man committee at its helm with a twenty-two strong board of directors made up of project scientists. The new report doesn’t address the open letter directly, though the signatories generally seem pleased with its findings. The report makes three recommendations, which clearly echo the specific complaints made in the open letter):
- Build a better infrastructure (ICT)
- Improve integration and connections between subprojects
- Improve administration and governance of the project
But this report hasn’t necessarily been headline news throughout Europe’s popular press (a mere speck on the horizon compared with other ‘science’ stories, for example about a weasel piggy-backing on a woodpecker), but this controversy is not something that should be overlooked, certainly not by Europe’s scientific community, nor by the public more generally. For the scientific community, including funding bodies, one lesson is this: that despite some much-improved efforts, interdisciplinary communication and integration is not something that is done easily. Communication between research centres and different disciplines cannot be taken for granted; there is still a need for intelligent (and sometimes creative) ways to build these bridges, beyond the platitudes and promises that find their way on to so many ill-conceived grant applications. Some argue that the HBP’s attempt to draw in so many different projects was always going to be mismanaged, that it was too centralised. So the report’s insistence upon a better management structure forces the question of whether such monolithic governance is the most efficient way to achieve such diverse aims.
The re-organisation of the HBP project administrative structure, before even the summary of this report was made public, shows that they have learned this lesson already, and their early mistakes can be something avoided by similarly ambitious projects in the future. Perhaps, too, the success of the education programme and public engagement aspects of the project is instructive: rather than the oversight and centralisation of research, perhaps the most effective use of such money lies in opening channels of communication, between researchers managing their own projects, and with the public more widely.
And why should the public care about this report at all? Well, there is the issue of accountability: the HBP has received quite a big chunk of the EU’s money and the public, therefore, should have a particular interest to ensure that this money is spent effectively. (Though therein lies another lesson for the scientific community: the public will demand accountability. You are being watched.) For all the controversy, however, the HBP’s beleaguered management team are correct when they say the project had certain growing pains, and was perhaps burdened by the weight of expectation and its own success (€1 billion is a LOT of money, after all), and these reports and changes show that they are listening and learning. They are demonstrating a responsiveness and willingness to change in the face of evidence that befits scientists (and, frankly, that shames politicians, who persevere with inefficient structures and policies whatever the evidence of their mistakes). But also, it is important that the public be aware of such developments because, for good or bad, this is how science gets done: by researchers and institutions working together in collaboration, which includes open processes of review, critical self-reflection and adaptation. The more stories like this, detailing how this happens, with all its exciting promise AND its stumbles, missteps and administrative banality, the further away from the still all-too-prevalent view of science being conducted by lone, wild-haired narcissists in secret dungeon labs.