The demise of the human brain project shows why promising the earth to get funding isn't always the best optionby Philip Ball / April 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
When the Human Brain Project was selected by the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative as one of its two Flagship science projects, launched in October 2013 with funding of €1bn over ten years (half to be gathered from national research agencies and other sponsors), it never looked like a wise choice to me. Now it’s official that it wasn’t.
Sure, the brain is science’s next frontier—but only in the sense that it looms as a big mystery, and not because we have any clear notion of how to tackle it. There’s no doubt that we need a wide variety of approaches and ideas, with tools and expertise drawn from neurology and genetics, computer sciences and physics, biochemistry and beyond. But that was not on the agenda of the Human Brain Project (HBP), which started from the premise that to understand the brain we should use experimental techniques to map out all of its connections and then create a massive computer simulation: a “virtual brain.” By doing so, the project leaders proclaimed, we should find cures for neurological and psychiatric disorders.
There is an element here of the popular (but false) idea that you never truly understand something until you can build it. That, needless to say, is never an option for planetary scientists or cosmologists. And the fact is that you can build something and still not fundamentally understand it—there aren’t many car mechanics who know their thermodynamics. Theoretical models don’t need to throw in the kitchen sink, and indeed they are often more useful if they don’t, so long as they incorporate the key principles. But of course that’s possible only if you have a good idea of what they are. We have a tremendously rich (albeit still thrillingly incomplete) understanding of the origins and evolution of the universe while still drawing on (among other things) computer models that are little more than schematic caricatures.
The “virtual brain” idea, on the other hand, seemed predicated on a belief that understanding will just fall out of the data, once you have enough of it. But that’s never a good way to do science. The real art is in discerning what to measure and what to exclude, how to simplify, how to capture…