Big science spells big headache for brain researchers

by Terence MacNamee

A lot of turbulence has been reported around the Human Brain Project, which is a “big science” project based at Lausanne here in Switzerland but funded by the European Union with very large amounts of money.

Meanwhile there is the BRAIN Initiative in the US, announced with great fanfare from the White House, and the lesser-known Brainnetome (brain-net-ome) project in China. The purpose of all three projects seems to be to do a sort of “genome” for the human brain, a complete map and specification of all its levels and networks. The emphases are different, though: the Chinese seem to be focusing a lot on medical implications, whereas the Swiss/Europeans have been focusing on the sheer computing technology of it – which has got them into trouble, but more of this anon.

The three projects seem to be rivals, but there is so much interconnectedness between universities and institutes in different countries that there can hardly be said to be a truly national project, even the one in China. Yet the Chinese project lacks exposure in the Western world, and the other two projects easily trump it in terms of showmanship.

I have been involved with such large scientific projects here in Switzerland, and I can tell you that what is essentially going on is a whole lot of researchers in different sub-fields trying to make sure that they get funding. In recent times, researchers in some areas have been thinking that it is better to club together and propose interdisciplinary or “big science” projects so that they can get a higher public profile and thus more money. Many researchers are prepared to take this gamble, but inevitably there are winners and losers. People who are already doing their own independent research fear that these “big science” projects will soak all the funding away from them.

The Human Genome Project at the turn of the millennium was the prototype of this kind of large-scale effort. Brain researchers too have been accumulating a lot of data, and thus the brain now seemed like a plausible candidate for a “big science” project.

The Human Brain Project in Switzerland was funded by the EU, but as it turned out, the researchers who secured the manna from Brussels were more interested in computer modelling than they were in empirical brain science. When they tried to squeeze the traditional brain scientists out, there were howls of protest. Now the research community has got its way and the HBP is going to have to be more accountable and spread the money around more evenly.

What the Lausanne neuroscientists have been planning to do is interesting, actually, in that they want to apply the knowledge of how the brain computes information to computers themselves, thus making them more like a human brain. But you can’t juggle “big science” when everyone isn’t on side because they don’t see themselves getting their chunk of funding. So whether the Lausanne boys will ever get to realize their dream is a moot point.