Human Brain Project interview with Thomas Lippert: Simulating brain in computer is like simulating weather

Human Brain Project interview with Thomas Lippert: Simulating brain in computer is like simulating weather

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 rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde

The rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde

For the publisher Elsevier, antivax papers are apparently only a problem when they are too heavily manipulated. It took their journal 12 years to retract the notorious paper by Andrew Wakefield, because of data irregularities (details here and here). But the damage was done, an worldwide antivax movement was born, which keeps spreading bizarre and irrational paranoia that vaccines would cause autism in children (most recently supported by the disastrous US president Donald Trump, in tweets and in actual governmental policy). Vaccination rates dropped worldwide, and consequently deadly diseases considered long eradicated are making a comeback. But scholarly publishers and their journals bear here a heavy responsibility, by repeatedly publishing antivax papers and providing the anti-vax movement with the scientific legitimacy.

This was exactly what Elsevier did just now, again. Their Journal of Inorganic Chemistry published a paper by notorious antivax researchers Christopher Shaw, ophthalmology professor in the University of British Columbia, and his postdoc Lucija Tomljenovic. Both scientists enjoy full support of their Canadian university, despite that, together with another antivaxer, Yehuda Schoenfeld, they once had to retract a paper on the alleged neurotoxicity of aluminium adjuvant in vaccines, from the Elsevier journal Vaccine. The authors then simply republished the retracted masterpiece again in another journal, Immunologic Research, published by Springer.

The newly published Shaw paper in Journal of Inorganic Chemistry is again about alleged neurotoxicity of aluminium (or as authors prefer to call it, “aluminum”) , with a bold claim that it would cause autism in mice, as detected by some biomarkers authors saw as appropriate:

Continue reading “The rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde”

Frontiers: vanquishers of Beall, publishers of bunk

Frontiers: vanquishers of Beall, publishers of bunk

It is now quasi official: do not mess with Frontiers. My earlier reporting made it a credible possibility that this Swiss publisher was behind the January 2017 shut-down and removal of Jeffrey Beall’s list of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”, and it was now indeed verified by an article in Chronicle of Higher Education. The librarian Beall used to be constantly under attack from Open Access (OA) publishers who were unhappy about his personal opinions and his private decisions to place them on his blog list. With those, his University of Colorado in Denver supported Beall. But the trouble started when he placed in October 2015 the Swiss publisher Frontiers onto his list, thus effectively declaring this Holtzbrinck-owned outlet a predatory publisher, after hearing of scientists’ complaints and reading my reports. To be fair, Frontiers are still defended by a much bigger number of scientists who see the advantage of having a reliable business partner who will publish certain manuscripts which hardly any respectable journal might consider.  Especially certain kinds of psychologists figured out that with the life-science-oriented Frontiers they can easily get merited as proper neuroscientists, or even biomedical polymaths (e.g., here). Regardless of the bunk they place there for $2500 a pop.

Frontiers first tried it nicely with Beall, when the Chief Executive Officer Frederick Fenter and journal manager Mirjam Curno (who is also trustee at Committee for Publication Ethics, COPE, read here) visited the librarian before Christmas 2016 in Denver (see my report here). Since Beall still did not remove Frontiers from his list, Fenter rallied its loyal journal editors and started together with them in August 2016 a campaign against Beall, demanding that his university punishes the librarian or at least forces him to remove Frontiers from his private list (read here). That information on my site served as (utterly uncredited) template for the aforementioned Chronicle of Higher Education article (as its author Paul Basken admitted to me, but his editor Brock Read denied). Basken then contacted Beall, who then also revealed to him that in January 2016 the University of Colorado Denver caved in to Frontiers demands and opened a misconduct case against its librarian. At this point, Beall decided to delete his list and save his job. An academic disagreement was resolved in a honed and cherished academic tradition: with a call to the employer and a threat of sacking.

Continue reading “Frontiers: vanquishers of Beall, publishers of bunk”

Human Brain Project and other Flagships: is EU outsourcing funding decisions?

Human Brain Project and other Flagships: is EU outsourcing funding decisions?

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?”

Human Brain Project: bureaucratic success despite scientific failure

Human Brain Project: bureaucratic success despite scientific failure

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”

Frontiers reviewer told: don’t be strict, endorse paper, reports Giulia Liberati

Journal peer review is a mysterious black box all scientists fear. The task of the reviewers is to help authors to improve their manuscripts scientifically and to help journal editors to weed out scientifically substandard and inappropriate works. That’s the theory anyway, in practice there are good reasons why the peer review process is traditionally something to be hidden by all means from the readers of published papers. Probably to avoid occasional shock, disgust  and repulsion, similar to how the supermarket customers should by no means be made aware of the true origins of industrially raised meat. In a kind of a vicious circle, this peer review secrecy is a direct invitation to rig it even more. Editors tend to assign friendly reviewers according to authors’ eminence, while peer reviewer conflicts of interests are routinely disregarded, since no one will ever find out anyway. In the same vein, scientists who made themselves some powerful enemies will see their manuscripts destroyed by unreasonable and aggressive peer review. They often naively hope the editor was decent enough not to invite those same adversaries whom the authors specifically asked to be excluded. Continue reading “Frontiers reviewer told: don’t be strict, endorse paper, reports Giulia Liberati”

The laborious delivery of Markram’s brainchild

The laborious delivery of Markram’s brainchild

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”