Human Brain ProjectStatus update, October 2012
Last week the leaders of 90 groups involved in the HBP convened in Lausanne for a summit meeting. This was a private invite-only event. By pure coincidence I happened to be in Lausanne on Tuesday when I saw a sign saying "HBP summit this way"
. So I followed the arrow into the Forum Rolex conference center and they were kind enough to let me sit in for a few hours.
By way of a reminder, the Human Brain Project (HBP) is a proposed ten-year project to understand and reverse engineer the human brain. The project is competing for a €1 billion grant from the European Union. The HBP is a worldwide consortium, to be based in Europe, and led from EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. The aim is to bring together hundreds of neuroscientists, computer scientists, roboticists, and neuromorphic engineers in a concerted effort to finally understand the brain.Current status
The current status is that finishing touches are being put to the proposal document. A 108-page draft has already been available online since July (goo.gl/eDZKk
). The final version must be submitted by the deadline of 5pm on Tuesday 23rd October 2012. During November the proposal, along with five other competing projects, will be studied by scientific reviewers. It's not known who the reviewers will be, but they'll be appointed by the EU. In the second week of December the HBP leaders will attend a half-day hearing with the EU. I think this is to be in Brussels.
After the reviews and hearing, the reviewers will have a consensus meeting and the six competing projects will be marked according to their scientific merit. Together the reviewers will then write a report and send it to the national referees from EU member states.
In principle, the one or two projects that score best in the scientific evaluation will be the ones that win funding. If two or more projects are tied or nearly tied, then the choice of project will become political. This is expected to happen. In fact, it was mentioned at the HBP summit that the decision would likely be around 70% political.Final decision date
The final decision is officially due to be made in mid-January. At the meeting last week, however, it was said that the decision would probably be delayed. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly in Brussels and it seems unlikely that a decision involving as much as €2 billion could be made so quickly. Nevertheless, a decision is expected sometime between January and March. Most likely in February 2013.
Once the decision has been made there will then be a six-month "negotiation phase". I'm not sure of the details, but this probably involves agreeing on the finer points of exactly how much money is awarded and to whom and when. Once this is completed the project can then get underway, probably around September 2013 and continuing through until September 2023.
From the general comments made at the summit last week, the HBP leaders seem very confident they'll get the funding. But it is not yet a foregone conclusion. They will be working hard these next two weeks to get the wording of the proposal correct and to make sure that the value of the project is conveyed with maximum impact.€1B is not much given the scale and importance of the problem
During the course of the meeting some comments were made that a billion Euros sounds like a lot of money to scientists. But in reality, given the scale and importance of understanding the human brain, it's actually not that much. Indeed, when compared to the amount spent by governments on other things, such as bank bailouts and war, then one billion is a drop in the ocean. It was mentioned that in science there are two big fundamental questions: 1) understanding the universe, 2) understanding the brain. The HBP could go a very long way to answering the second one. The long-term payoff from this project is potentially huge. It should be given proper funding instead of having to survive on crumbs.Comparison with the Human Genome Project
At the meeting some comparisons were drawn with the Human Genome Project. If I understood correctly, there was lots of controversy in the late 1980s about that endeavour. Apparently many people doubted the value it might bring. Since its successful completion, however, the field of bioinformatics has exploded. Nowadays many thousands of scientists all over the world have little trouble getting funding for genome research. The genome project has had knock-on effects that have brought a lot more funding into the field. The HBP could be very similar. By creating a successful and integrated platform for brain research, the groundwork will be laid to attract lots more research funding in the future.Official website: humanbrainproject.euAttached photo from the HBP summit, 4th October 2012This post written by +James Pearn