Could the Human Brain Project have done better?
Commenting about science has risks. Being critical sometimes raises strong opposing reactions. People work so hard and leaders do not like to see their strategies under fire. Critics do not usually provide easy solutions to the problems they raise, and the questions, even if they are right on target, remain largely unanswered. When the stakes are high and massive funds wait to be delivered, the train (or ship), once launched, ought not to derail (nor sink). It must go on, as planned, keeping the initial thrust alive.
In terms of management efficacy, a typical reason why the project’s leadership does not answer critiques is to “keep the monkey(s) on the critics’ shoulders” (Oncken and Wass, 1974; Cover, 1999). Being proactive may be a better way to get rid of the monkeys and open a constructive dialogue. The issue then becomes: what could have been done instead, for a better science? This is typically the question that I am asked at the end of my neuro-epistemological talks, or in comments received following prospective reviews on global neuroscience initiatives (Frégnac and Laurent, 2014; Frégnac, 2017, 2021).
My motivation to write about flagships and global neuroscience comes from my long involvement in interdisciplinary consortia, first as the biology coordinator for almost 15 years in successive European Future and Emerging Technology (FET) projects (Life-Like Perception, Bio-I3, Open-FET: Sensemaker, FACETS, Brain-I-Nets, BrainScaleS), then as an active participant in the ramp-up phase of the Human Brain Project (HBP).
The present opinion paper is a commentary on the merits and limits of scientific strategies developed during the course of the HBP flagship. It should not be taken as an evaluation of the deliverables produced by eminent scientists and peers, with some of whom I have the pleasure and the honor to collaborate, or of the technological platforms created by the project, which I did not use. Accordingly, the focus here is not on individuals and their specific science, but on flagships, their metaphoric drive, their ups and downs in the making, and how they could serve the future of brain sciences.
Flagship Afterthoughts: Could the Human Brain Project (HBP) Have Done Better? Yves Frégnac.