The EU €1-Billion-Flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) started in 2013 as an closed enterprise run by three men. The triumvirate is no more:  the visionary founder Henry Markram sidelined into almost insignificance after a coup, his Lausanne colleague Richard Frackowiak almost retired, only the German Karlheinz Meier, physics professor at University of Heidelberg, still seems to hold quite a lot of sway. The control of HBP is now basically in German hands: the “independent” mediator of the anti-Markram coup and director of Forschungzentrum Jülich (FZJ), Wolfgang Marquardt, is key member of the all-decisive HBP Stakeholder Board representing Germany, his FZJ colleague Katrin Amunts is the new scientific director of HBP. The bombastic goal of HBP used to be simulating the human brain in a supercomputer, including various brain diseases and even consciousness (read here and here for HBP background). That Markram’s “brain child” was silently mothballed, the big plan is now only revealed to select insider audiences (who occasionally blab on Twitter). The once high and mighty Markram, whose not-so-groundbreaking Cell paper (Markram et al, 2015) was once touted as HBP’s mega-success, was apparently forced to publish his recent brain simulation research in his own publishing outlet Frontiers (Reimann et al 2017), where he proclaimed a discovery of nothing less but a “Multi-Dimensional Universe in Brain Networks”. Regardless of what Markram thinks he is doing or what fairy tales HBP graduate students are told: dissolving the monster HBP and redistributing its EU funding onto smaller projects was obviously not an opinion. The new purpose of HBP seems to be:

  • distributing the EU Flagship money, in the way HBP see it best fit, thus
  • sparing the EU Commission the tedious work of research grant reviewing and management

Outsourcing funding distribution and peer review?

The “official” current objective of HBP is about designing a European computational neuroscience network platform, or something of the kind, because HBP leaders simply refuse to clearly tell the public what their actual research goals are. It seems, even those evaluating HBP don’t really know what this Flagship’s exact purpose is. With such a bizarre set-up, HBP seems to be serving simply as a bloated distributor of computational neuroscience funding for the EU. After the anti-Markram coup, HBP (and Flagships in general) were forced to open to external contributors, a call is made every 2 years where non-members can apply to join, just as it happens right now. The applicants, or rather the supplicants, must humbly woo and sweet-talk the Flagship bigwigs in order to be allowed to apply with them for that newly available EU Flagship funding. There is even a list of recommended literature issued by HBP (i.e., their papers in PNAS, Nature Communications and PLOS1), for the hopeful candidates to learn and to admire. Those who did not study and admire the leaders’ papers will probably be failed, as it is often custom with PhD job candidates. No Flagship application admittance for those losers.

The general direction of a HBP call is specified by HBP itself, in concert with the EU Commission. One such call is “Coordination of Gender Equality Activities”, and it is sure sorely needed in this Flagship project, which was founded by 3 men and is even now run basically by men. The HBP Directorate includes among its 6 members only one woman, Amunts, the Stakeholder Board, where 19 countries are individually represented, includes only one woman (representing Finland), the Board’s virile Steering committee consists of 7 proud standing members. The 12 subprojects (SP) of HBP have only two female heads, one of them is predictably Amunts, the other, Kathinka Evers, heads the Ethics and Society platform. The right job for a female touch, was probably what the HBP patriarchs were thinking. Just to be on the safe side, the woman is assisted (or supervised?) by 5 men in this SP12. Even the freshly recruited 10-head strong Scientific Advisory Board features only 2 women. One wonders which gender equality activities HBP plans to coordinate under the circumstances, but a man never says no to a funding opportunity.

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Thomas Lippert from FZJ apparently asking: Gentlemen, now we got control of HBP and its money, what shall we do with it? Ideas? Image tweeted by HBP.

When applying to join HBP, the external applicants are in some cases not allowed to bring their own original research proposals. They must instead integrate their work with that of what is already part of HBP. In this way, it is similar to a postdoc application process, where you have to pitch on how your skills and work experience can contribute to the ongoing research of the lab. It sure does not look like HBP takes those outsiders as anywhere near equal, and treats them as such. Scientists however will readily jump through many hoops for a whiff of funding. In the next step, these humble candidates and their proposals enter a peer review process provided they master the peer review which these Flagships themselves organise.

This peer review process is said to be external and free of COI, which we must take on trust, because none of those HBP-appointed peer reviewers will be named or their reports published. The finalised and peer reviewed funding proposals then go to the EU Commission, where bureaucrats will decide if those sound convincing enough. As we saw  before, positive decisions sometimes happen with HBP before any scientific evaluation took place (see my report). Those complaining about intransparent or unfair peer reviewing of their EU funding proposals can now say if the new Flagship model is any fairer.

It may be somewhat different with the other EU Flagship, Graphene, which was primarily set up to bring the namesake technology to the market. The last evaluation indicated the industrial engagement with Graphene was somewhat suboptimal. Now, the EU Commission demands of Graphene to start delivering, their new partners are to come from the industry and bring with them some big industrial investments. HBP however has no industrial ties except for the own companies already founded by its participants, and no industrial investment or even marketable deliveries are expected.

EU is sure not inclined to see their beloved Flagships criticised. I submitted that past HBP blogpost to the EU in My Region competition, and it was indeed admitted by an external jury member. Only to be right after buried and never shown to public by the EU bureaucrats, who were afraid to be sued by their own funding recipients. Maybe they were just afraid I would win?

Despite the bizarre scientific performance (or non-performance) of HBP, and Graphene’s shortcomings on marketing their produce, EU is firmly dedicated to its Flagship model, which currently made 3.5 % of the EU research funding. Is it because it works so excellently with outsourcing the funding distribution tasks and responsibilities, even if to a handful of (literally) men? The next €1 billion project, The Quantum Technology Flagship, was announced in spring 2017, and Marquardt’s FZJ also has a share in that one. Further FET Flagship calls are open.

HOPE into 3D printed organs

One current applicant for a future FET Flagship is HOPE (Human Organ Printing Era). Their goal is to create living human organs, ready for transplant, using 3D bioprinters, where liquid tissues are to be loaded as ink and printed on a scaffold. A muscle cell there, a nerve cell there, a blood vessel cells here: ready is a beating living human heart. Just like Lego, even if anyone with access to a microscope might figure out that an animal cells do not look like tiny uniform blocks, certainly not inside an organ. My regular readers might be particularly sceptical towards the entire concept of human organ bioprinting, what with the Paolo Macchiarini scandal of organ growing and dead patients, or the big organ 3D bioprinting plans of his former boss Axel Haverich, which never led anywhere. The peculiar bit is: there are practically no developmental or stem cell biologists advocating this 3D bioprinting technology, most of those visionary proponents are either doctors or engineers. Also HOPE is comprised of the veterinarian Jos Malda, as well as material scientists Juergen Groll, Lorenzo Moroni, Will Shu and Giovanni Vozzi.

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FET Flagships: a new HOPE (from a 2017 EC presentation by the clinician Fornasari)

According to this meanwhile deleted Flagship candidate presentation to the European Commission from early 2017, HOPE merged in October 2016 with ERMI (European Regenerative Medicine Initiative), to form a FET Flagship proposal “Biofabrication for Regenerative Medicine”, where they also talk about developing artificial intelligence to guide their 3D bioprinting purposes. Since EU is keen to see a financial return on their investment, a market of $1.82 Billion is envisioned by 2022.

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The trick is to exclude specialists, and everything becomes doable.  From EC presentation by Fornasari

I am actually very positive that HOPE and their partners succeed in getting their cool Billion of Euro. Firstly, because the Biofabrication for Regenerative Medicine consortium is led entirely by men, in good FET Flagship tradition, which helps enormously to package scientific ignorance into swaggering alpha-male arrogance, and which is an absolute must to bamboozle EU bureaucrats with an obsession in regenerative medicine (see here and here). But also, since when was actual science relevant for Flagship approval? Especially given the cheap science fiction premise of a brain-in-a-box, under which HBP was originally funded with one billion Euro? On the other hand, the belief into the magic 3D bioprinting of human organs does manifestly exist in academic circles, and this should suffice to raise enough healthy cut-throat competition around that multi-million EU funding, to be distributed under EU auspices by the Flagship-steering oligarchs.

2 thoughts on “Human Brain Project and other Flagships: is EU outsourcing funding decisions?

  1. When I was still at EPFL around 2013, the HBP was publicly ridiculed in the student newspaper (the one outlet that avoided official censorship on criticism of this wonderful project). I wonder what they write now that the wheels have fallen off completely?

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