When asked if it was difficult to govern during a world war, the American President Woodrow Wilson famously replied; “Not at all. I have been chairman of a political science department and president of a university.” The quotation referred to notorious conflicts among academics, and in many ways reflects what is currently taking place surrounding the Human Brain Project (HBP).
The Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, the lead in a network of 112 research institutions in 24 countries, was awarded a huge contract by the European Commission to study the functioning of the human brain. The size of the subsidy - €1,200,000,000 over 10 years – was enough to cause enormous jealousy. Contrary to another famous quote attributed to Henry Kissinger about academics – “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” - the amount of money involved here is substantial. And because the money involved is substantial, the jealousies and complaints have risen above the usual internecine squabbling. 500 academics and institutions have already signed a July 7 petition warning the Commission about HBP and threatening to boycott the project.
There are several issues being raised in the letter, many of them dealing with management problems such as transparency, expenditures and administrative matters. The professors are hanging out all their dirty laundry for the world to see. And, indeed, much of what is being debated concerning these matters can be traced to petty jealousy.
But, one of the side issues in this debate is much more substantial and cannot be solved by a simple accounting audit. The challenge of HBP, that on which it has staked its claim, is that by advanced technology, including a whole new generation of computer capacity, the mysteries of the human brain will be revealed. Listening to Professor Henry Markram, Director of HBP, one enters into a (brave?) new world whereby the causes of diseases such as dementia will be revealed through highly advanced computer modeling. While our actual brains are limited in size, HBP proposes to analyze the electronic and chemical interactions within the brain with enormous mechanical equipment, resulting in a great leap forward in neuroscience and medicine. They propose, in fact, to change how cognitive science is done.
HBP is part of a very modern movement in neuroscience that seeks to understand not only the functioning of the brain, but also to understand personalities and emotions, thought and behavior through the same processes, a form of determinism. A huge cottage industry has developed around the subject. Europe’s sponsoring the HBP has led to U.S. scientists proposing the U.S. Brain Initiative to map the brain’s activity to the tune of £1.75 over ten years.
At a most impressive presentation of HBP in Lausanne, I asked Professor Markram a simple question about consciousness and free will, questions that have challenged philosophers for thousands of year. Confidently, he replied; “We will get to those questions in the near future.” I’m not so sure. But it is obvious that behind the recent controversy and silly snipping are more fundamental questions about how far science can go in revealing how human’s function. Some of the signers of the petition are arguing about exaggerated promises of what computer modeling can do and thus questioning the allocation of such huge resources in one basket. They would prefer more money being spent on genetics and psychology.
As a friend has wisely commented: “Big science costs big money, but most advances are from little science. The Theory of Relativity and the Theory of Evolution did not require huge outputs of taxpayer money.” Or, closer to home in another context, the humanitarian tradition of International Geneva began with five men meeting in a small apartment in the Old Town. From that simple beginning began the International Committee of the Red Cross. As for HBP, let the taxpayer beware.