Europe’s ambitious project to unpick the workings of the human brain faces a crisis less than a year after it was launched with great fanfare at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. Some neuroscientists involved in the billion-euro Human Brain Project (HBP) are furious that much of their research into how the brain executes its cognitive functions is to be sidelined as the initiative enters its next phase.

Arguments over the strategy and direction of mega-science projects are nothing new. But the acrimony over this project is particularly unfortunate, given its status as one of two European Union (EU) flagship programmes designed to cross some of the widest interdisciplinary barriers and solve societal problems — such as brain disease. Already, some leading scientists have walked away. If more follow, the project could waste a golden opportunity to understand the brain.

Dissent in the ranks about what the project should encompass and who should decide this has been raging for months. But it peaked in late May, when the project’s leaders made clear that they intended to exclude studies on cognition from their core future plans.

The first funding, or ‘ramp-up’, phase of the brain project began in October last year with €54 million (US$73 million) from the European Commissionand is scheduled to run for three years. The second phase of the ten-year project will be funded to the tune of around €100 million per year for two or three years. But in their detailed plans for this second stage, submitted on 10 June to the commission for approval, the project managers eliminated research on human cognitive architecture.

Cognitive scientists feel ousted. As we report on page 133, they criticize the management of the project — which is hosted at the EPFL and involves 80 or so partner institutes — and say that it has lost its chance to unite EU neuroscientists behind its self-proclaimed ‘Moon-shot-like’ attempt to understand the brain.

Appropriately, given its subject matter, the workings of the project are complex. The funds come not from the commission’s research arm, but from its directorate on information and communication technologies (ICT). As such, the selection of the HBP was on the basis of its scientific merit and the likelihood that computers would be used to solve important problems.

Best-laid schemes

The HBP proposed building “a completely new ICT infrastructure for neuroscience” to help to address the problems of brain disorders. But from its inception, the project, led by Henry Markram at the EPFL, has been promoted as primarily a neuroscience rather than a technological effort. Even at its launch last October, its press release opened with the statement: “The world’s most ambitious neuroscience project is underway.”

Markram, himself a neuroscientist, has been a strong proponent of the part of the project intended to simulate the workings of the entire human brain in a computer. To many outsiders, this promise has become synonymous with the HBP. Yet the idea is controversial in the scientific community (see Nature 482, 456–458; 2012). Many neuroscientists simply do not think that it is possible to simulate the brain — that is, reproduce its signals in detail — with just the ‘bottom-up’ data (molecular, cellular, anatomical and the like) that the project will collate.

Stanislas Dehaene, director of the INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Paris and head of the HBP’s cognitive-neuroscience efforts, says that such a simulation, “while not totally useless, will fail to elucidate brain functions and diseases, much like a simulation of every feather on a bird would fail to clarify flight”. Along with other ousted colleagues, Dehaene believes that a top-down, reverse-engineering approach is required, starting with behaviour and high-density recordings of electrical activity in the brains of humans or animals to elucidate how information is encoded and used.

The project’s advisory boards are pushing for a sensible resolution.

Funding plans for the second phase of the project are more complicated because the European Commission wants to promote its European Research Area. Starting in 2016, the project should receive €50 million per year from the commission for phase two. This must be matched by funding from national sources through a system that is still being worked out, but is likely to involve the pooling of cash from funding agencies in EU member states that wish to participate in the project. The pot of money will finance the winners of competitive calls for ‘partnering projects’.

According to the HBP’s proposal for this phase, cognitive neuro­science will be able to access the project in this way. But it might be unrealistic to expect the best scientists to apply to be partners without a say in the general scientific direction of the programme. Indeed, in an open letter to the European Commission on 7 July, more than 150 neuroscientists pledged to boycott the partnering projects if their concerns are not resolved. This underscores the importance of ensuring that the arguments are resolved immediately, before rifts get wider and deeper.

The HBP scientific advisory boards have recognized that some changes in management structure are needed. Last week, together with the provost of the EPFL, they put forward some proposals to make the management more representative of the programme’s participants. They are helpful, but may not go far enough.

Simply, the brain project needs a consensual management system that allows the full spectrum of leading European neuroscientists to line up behind it — and that is even more important given that the scientific premise of the high-profile brain-simulation pillar remains controversial. It may be too soon to commit to a single path.

The present crisis can be solved. Certainly, the project’s advisory boards are pushing for a sensible resolution. The second-phase plan will now be reviewed by a European Commission panel, providing a further opportunity to request changes. The flagship brain project must sail on. There is too much at stake for it to face an unnecessary headwind.