Brain project directors hit back at research critics

Directors of the Human Brain Project (HBP), the Swiss-run €1.2 billion research programme that aims to simulate the human brain, have responded to criticism from participating scientists who have threatened to boycott the project.

Brain project directors hit back at research critics
Photo: Human Brain Project

Launched last year, the Human Brain Project brings together 112 institutions in 24 countries and is directed by EPFL in Lausanne.

On Monday hundreds of dissenting scientists, including many from Swiss universities, signed a letter to the European Commission, which largely funds the 10-year flagship project, complaining of its “overly narrow approach”.

The open letter, signed by professors across Europe including some from Swiss universities, said: “We strongly question whether the goals and the implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.”

Central to the complaints is the fact that the project is initially concentrating on creating new IT systems to allow scientists around the world to collaborate, rather than ploughing funds into cognitive research.

Speaking to UK newspaper The Guardian, Geneva University neuroscientist Alexandre Pouget, said: "There is a danger that Europe thinks it is investing in a big neuroscience project here, but it's not. It's an IT project," he said.

"They need to widen the scope and take advantage of the expertise we have in neuroscience. It's not too late. We can fix it. It's up to Europe to make the right decision."

Responding on Thursday, the HBP executive committee and board of directors called for participants to discuss perceived problems in the project “through direct scientific exchange”.

In their four-page response, directors said they were “saddened” by the open letter, which they feel “divides rather than unifies our efforts to understand the brain”.

Directors said that while there was no doubt cognitive science was vital for the project, it should come after the creation of IT tools.

“Creating and supporting an open user community… is among the most important goals of HBP and an essential part of the current work programme,” they said.

“Reconstructing and simulating the human brain is a vision, a target; the benefits will come from the technology needed to get there. That technology, developed by the HBP, will benefit all of neuroscience as well as related fields.”

They added that “cognitive and behavioural neuroscience will become the most significant component of neuroscience in HBP over the course of the project. However, for this to happen the platforms have to be in place first.”

Prioritizing tasks in this way was not unusual for a scientific project of this size, directors said.

The implementation of IT resources is classed as a ‘core project’ in the HBP, while neuroscience research is classed as a ‘partnering project’.

“The Board… decided that, in the Operational Phase, some cognitive neuroscience activities would fit better in the Partnering Projects, where they could focus on the investigator-driven research advocated by the signatories of the open letter,” said the response.

It added: “The HBP is not a funding mechanism and unfortunately it cannot include all relevant and worthy work at all stages. The HBP aims to unify by building technologies that everyone, including the signatories of the open letter, finds useful.”

Speaking to Swiss newspaper Le Temps on Friday, EPFL president Patrick Aebischer, said “There are certainly well-known scientists who are against the project, but there are plenty of others, neuroscientists, who support it.”

The current wave of dissent is due to a “snowball effect,” he said, commenting that the project has had its sceptics from the beginning.

“Many neuroscientists have never understood that the HBP is a project linked to the EU’s IT division,” he told Le Temps.

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EXPLAINED: What are the main obstacles to finding a job when moving to an EU country?

Moving to another country is never easy, as it requires going through cultural changes and administrative formalities. It can be even more complicated when looking for a job.

EXPLAINED: What are the main obstacles to finding a job when moving to an EU country?

According to new data released by the EU statistical office, Eurostat, the knowledge of the national language and the recognition of professional qualifications are the two most common obstacles experienced by foreign-born people in finding a ‘suitable’ job in countries of the European Union.

Overall, about a quarter of people born outside the EU who had experience in working or looking for work in the bloc reported some difficulties getting a ‘suitable’ job for level of education (without considering the field of expertise or previous experience).

The Eurostat analysis shows that the situation is better for EU citizens moving within the bloc. But there are major differences depending on countries and gender.

Life can be more difficult for women

In 2021, 13.2 percent of men and 20.3 percent of women born in another European Union country reported obstacles in getting a suitable job in the EU place of residence.

These proportions however increase to 20.9 percent for men and 27.3 percent for women born in a non-EU country with a high level of development (based on the United Nations’ Human Development Index) and 31.1 percent for men and 35.7 percent for women from non-EU countries with a low or medium level of development.

Finland (42.9 percent), Sweden (41.7 percent), Luxembourg (34.6 percent) and France (32.1 percent) are the countries with the highest shares of people born outside the EU reporting problems. Norway, which is not part of the bloc, has an even higher percentage, 45.2, and Switzerland 34.3 percent.

In contrast, Cyprus (11.2 percent), Malta (10.9 percent), Slovenia (10.2 percent), Latvia (10 percent) and Lithuania (6.7 percent) have the lowest proportion of people born outside the EU reporting difficulties.

Lack of language skills

The lack of skills in the national language is most commonly cited as a hurdle, and it is even more problematic for women.

This issue was reported by 4.2 percent of men born in another EU country, 5.3 percent of those born in a developed country outside the EU and 9.7 percent of those from a non-EU country with a middle or low level of development. The corresponding shares for women, however, were 5.6, 6.7 and 10.5 percent respectively.

The countries where language skills were more likely to be reported by non-EU citizens as an obstacle in getting a relevant job were Finland (22.8 percent), Luxembourg (14.7 percent) and Sweden (13.1 percent).

As regards other countries covered by The Local, the percentage of non-EU citizens citing the language as a problem was 12.4 percent in Austria, 10.2 percent in Denmark, 7.8 percent in France, 5.1 percent in Italy, 2.7 percent in Spain, 11.1 percent on Norway and 10.1 percent in Switzerland. Data is not available for Germany.

Portugal (77.4 percent), Croatia (68.8 percent), Hungary (58.8 percent) and Spain (58.4 percent) have the highest share of people from outside the EU already speaking the language as a mother tongue before arriving, while more than 70 percent of non-EU citizens residing in Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Norway said they had participated in language courses after arrival.

Lisbon Portugal

Portugal has the highest share of people from outside the EU already speaking the language as a mother tongue before arriving. (Photo by Aayush Gupta on Unsplash)

Recognition of qualifications

Another hurdle on the way to a relevant job in EU countries is the lack of recognition of a formal qualification obtained abroad. This issue was reported by 2 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women born in another EU country. It was also mentioned by 3.3 percent of men and 5.9 percent of women born in a developed country outside the EU, and 4.8 percent of men and 4.6 percent of women born in a less developed non-EU country.

Eurostat says this reflects an “unofficial distrust” among employers of qualification obtained abroad and the “low official validation of foreign education”.

The lack of availability of a suitable job was another factor mentioned in the survey. In Croatia, Portugal and Hungary, this was the main obstacle to getting an adequate position.

This issue concerned 3.3 percent of men and 4.5 percent of women born in another EU country, 4.2 percent of men and 5 percent of women born in a developed non-EU country It also worried 3.9 percent of men and 5.1 percent of women born in a less developed non-EU country.

Restricted right to work due to citizenship or residence permits, as well as plain discrimination on the grounds of origin were also cited as problems.

Discrimination was mostly reported by people born in a less developed non-EU country (3.1 percent for men and 3.3 percent for women) compared to people born in highly developed non-EU countries (1.9 percent for men and 2.2 percent for women).

Citizenship and residence permits issues are unusual for people from within the EU. For people from outside the EU, this is the only area where women seem to have fewer problems than men: 1.6 percent of women from developed non-EU countries reported this issue, against 2.1 percent of men, with the share increasing to 2.8 and 3.3 percent respectively for women and men from less developed non-EU states.

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.