Following is my email interview with Thomas Lippert, professor and director of the Institute for Advanced Simulation and the Jülich Supercomputing Centre at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in the west of Germany, located somewhere between the cities of Cologne and Aachen. Lippert’s FZ Jülich is a central partner at the Human Brain Project (HBP), the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship mega-consortium which is funded with €1 Billion, half of which coming from the European Union. Lippert heads the Subproject (SP) 7 at the HBP, named High-Performance Analytics and Computing Platform, tasked with providing the high-performance computational power in order to help the HBP megaproject simulate the human brain and its diseases.
I previously wrote some critical articles about HBP, about the hubris of its founding father Henry Markram, the bizarre way EU positively evaluated the performance of HBP without actually evaluating it, and also about the purpose of HBP and Flagship projects in general. Incidentally, the last article’s cover photo showed Lippert at a HBP conference. We got into a discussion over Twitter during HBP’s recent Open Day show in Glasgow, where Lippert kindly agreed to answer my questions about the purpose and orientation of HBP.
Continue reading “Human Brain Project interview with Thomas Lippert: Simulating brain in computer is like simulating weather”
The European Commission now took 40 days to deny my second Freedom of Information (FOI) Inquiry about the TETRA phase 2 clinical trial with cadaveric trachea transplant they are currently financing with €7 Million. This is EU’s second attempt to become world-leading manufacturer of industrial trachea transplants, after the €5mn Biotrachea led by the scandal surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was terminated mid-term. No, not because EU had any concerns for the patients, quite the opposite: he was given a clean ethics vote to go ahead. Biotrachea was terminated by the EU because the plastic tracheas Macchiarini wanted to use lacked novelty, as the documents I obtained revealed.
The TETRA trial, led by Macchiarini’s past collaborator, the UCL laryngologist Martin Birchall, was already on the brink of being terminated in the wake of the Macchiarini scandal, as EU previously indicated to me. Now, exactly the opposite happens. The trial is being prepared at full speed despite the fact that its predecessor phase 1 trial INSPIRE was suspended (because of my reporting), never recruited any of its four patients and it most likely never will. That trial is also led by Birchall (details here), it is likely that its Innovate UK funding has ran out meanwhile. EU however seems to signal that they will go ahead with phase 2 trial even if phase 1 never happens. After all, there are those 10 patients who received a cadaveric trachea transplant (here and below) and were operated under hospital exemptions between 2008 and 2012 by Macchiarini and Birchall. At least half of these 10 are dead, the lucky survivors either had their graft removed or live with permanently installed stents to prevent their rotting airways from collapsing (INSPIRE’s and TETRA’s clinical promise is actually that the patients will never need a stent). But this disaster seems exactly the reason for EU to try it again, and on a much, much bigger scale: 48 patients are scheduled to receive cadaveric tracheas. Probably because it will create employment.
The EU spokesperson ceased long ago answering my emails, after I declined to be instructed over the phone (strictly off-the-record) why EU’s approach to trachea transplanting is right; this is why I had to resort to FOI. The official time limit to answer my FOI inquiry from July 1st 2017 was 15 days, but the EU first pretended not to have received my postal address, then said they need more time, then said they need extra time to assemble the documents for me, and finally, the Director-General of the European Commission, Robert-Jan Smits, wrote to me on September 11th. He basically told me again to get lost and that he will never release any information (read here his past rejection of my FOI inquiry). His reasons, as before: the trachea transplant trial is a business enterprise and revealing any of its progress might endanger the financial interests of its stakeholders, and then there are privacy concerns. Exactly, Smits decided that the public must under no circumstances find out whom exactly the EU is giving this public’s money for research on humans. I am not making it up, read Smits’ letter yourself here. Continue reading “EU commemorates dead patients of Macchiarini & Birchall with a phase 2 trachea transplant trial TETRA”
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
Continue reading “Human Brain Project and other Flagships: is EU outsourcing funding decisions?”
The EU €1-Billion-Flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) has passed its midterm evaluation with flying colours. Noone knows exactly what the objectives of this bombastic project is, as members of the evaluation panel indicated to me, while others refused to answer this question. The HBP leadership sure keeps the exact definition of these objectives secret, or maybe they don’t know them themselves. Which is easy to understand, because given the leniency HBP keeps receiving from those supposed to evaluate it, its real objective becomes perfectly clear: to secure the public funding. There, HBP succeeded indeed, the €1 Billion seems rather safe. It is none of the public’s business where the money will go, but it can rest assured it will certainly go somewhere. The public should also not expect any deliverables or return on its research investment, this the HBP leadership already made perfectly clear. I am showing below what a farce the recent HBP evaluations were, while the positive outcome was much hailed as evidence for excellent scientific performance. Continue reading “Human Brain Project: bureaucratic success despite scientific failure”
The European multimillion research project Human Brain Project is under fresh leadership, its visionary founder Henry Markram ousted from power. Worse, both life-and-blood projects of the neuroscience professor at the Swiss elite university EPFL are not performing as he envisioned them to. His open access publishing house Frontiers was dumped by the Nature Publishing Group and ended up with the German publisher Holtzbrinck, with neither them nor Frontiers particularly keen on boasting this property relationship. Editors and reviewers ran away or refused duty in droves, Frontiers was even fingered as a possible predatory publisher. On top of everything, Markram’s outlet stands accused of being an employee-abusing spam factory.
So much for Markram the Entrepreneur and Inventor. But he is first and foremost a scientist, whose research proposal received the biggest research funding grant in history: one billion Euros from the European Union, for his “brainchild” (as journalists dubbed it), the Human Brain Project. The modest promise Markram originally made to secure this mind-boggling mountain of cash: he intended to simulate the entire human brain in his supercomputer by 2023, the possibility of artificial consciousness specifically not excluded. Now however, his consortium partners took over, Markram was dethroned in a scientists’ coup and pushed aside to tinker on his seemingly less ambitious, but just as science-fictionary mouse Blue Brain simulation. Once in control of almost everything and everyone, with all the big money going through his hands, Markram is now only one of 12 project leaders and far from being the boss. The Human Brain Project (HBP) became instead a kind of funding network without any properly defined orientation, not even the new leaders could convincingly describe any defined goals. Instead, its main purpose seems to be now set on keeping the EU funding of almost €50 Million per year flowing. Remarkably, all this was achieved after an allegedly independent mediation by the director of an HBP-consortium partner institute; coincidentally a member scientist from this Jülich Research Centre (Forschungszentrum Jülich, located in a rural triangle between German cities Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aachen) is now the new scientific director of HBP.
This is how the dream of the brain-in-the-box grew, prospered and imploded. Continue reading “The laborious delivery of Markram’s brainchild”