Mediation Process for the Human Brain Project Officially Concluded
Jülich, 30th October 2015. The recently signed Framework Partnership Agreement, which has been negotiated between the Human Brain Project (HBP) and the European Commission (EC), is a touchstone for the implementation of the mediation group's recommendations. The mediation group which started its work in autumn 2014 regards this juncture as the official conclusion of its work and also as an opportunity to provide a short overview of how its recommendations have been met so far. The further implementation of the new agreement must be monitored by the HBP supervisory bodies and the European Commission.
"The majority of the mediation group, including myself, regards the new FPA as a step forward to a better balanced scientific structure. We also recognize progress relating to a concerted governance structure for the HBP," says mediator Wolfgang Marquardt. "We regard the FPA as a milestone, but not as the arrival point, for the project development. The challenge for the HBP will now be to regain scientific and public confidence with undiminished effort."
1. The mediation group had recommended that systems and cognitive neurosciences should be reintegrated into the HBP as crosscutting projects linking existing subprojects, which are organized largely within traditional scientific disciplines. The crosscutting activities should demonstrate the value that the evolving IT platforms can add to the solutions to concrete and ambitious problems in cognitive and systems neuroscience in an interdisciplinary research approach.
This recommendation has been addressed by a recently completed open EU-wide call for activities in the field of systems and cognitive neuroscience. A total of 57 proposals were submitted, out of which 4 were selected by an independent expert panel in September. One of the criteria for selection was the degree to which the projects can contribute to the evolving IT platforms. The 4 projects will form a new subproject entitled "Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience" in the first period of the HBP’s Specific Grant Agreement, provided the appropriate proposal of the HBP is successful. In addition, co-design projects have been created to form crosscutting activities, bridging the neuroscience and platform subprojects.
The mediation group welcomes the changes that have been achieved. It also appears that the scientific program would benefit from external scientific advise, by monitoring the implementation of the crosscutting links between subprojects, and by establishing open calls on a regular basis. The project management should be encouraged to follow the strict standards of rigorous external scientific review.
2. Referring to the HBP’s mission and objectives, the mediation report emphasized the point that the HBP has been the target of criticism due to the perception that it is a neuroscience project aiming to accelerate the development of diagnostic methods and treatments.
The mediation group’s recommendation to focus on building a world-class ICT research infrastructure for neuroscience, brain medicine, and future computing to enable the simulation of the human brain has been well implemented in the FPA. The refocused mission emphasising the project’s course of scientific excellence is regarded as the guiding principle, not only for further sharpening the scientific profile of the HBP, but also for future HBP communication activities. The mediation group regards it as decisive for the overall success of the project that the HBP will set up a research infrastructure for brain research, which is driven and accepted by the scientific community. The interdisciplinary development and testing of IT platforms for neuroscience as well as the demonstration of the added value for neuroscientific research processes is key to success.
3. Regarding the governance of the HBP, the mediation group had recommended that a clear separation be made between the functions of research, development of scientific strategy, project management, and project monitoring. These functions should each be undertaken by different bodies. It was also recommended that bodies who decide on the distribution of the budget or who are responsible for quality assurance should include external experts. The members of the decision-making bodies should not work in projects affected by these decisions. Project management should be entrusted to an independent organization to be established as a new legal entity expressly for this purpose.
The new FPA defines revised governance structures and bodies as well as the creation of a legal entity to be formed by representative partners from different countries to take on the role of project coordinator. These are important steps in the right direction. It is acknowledged that the governance has been completely restructured. Especially the planned new legal entity is to welcome, given its importance for moving the project to a future federated infrastructure. It is now decisive how the governance structure will be realized in detail to implement the aspired checks and balances. Care should be taken to avoid the accumulation of different functions among a small number of protagonists in a way that is contrary to the aspired separation of functions and responsibilities. It is also recommended that external expertise be sought for scientific advise and quality assurance. Furthermore, the mediation group regards it as crucial that the implementation of the new governance structure be completed as soon as possible.
The Board of Directors of the HBP formally initiated the mediation process in response to criticism of the HBP, culminating in July 2014 in an open letter to the EU signed by several hundred scientists. The letter demanded modifications to both the management structure and the scientific focus of the project. Wolfgang Marquardt was appointed mediator and a mediation committee was set up and developed a set of recommendations to bring the HBP back on track. The members of the mediation committee were experts in various fields of research relevant to the HBP and had experience in science management and in managing large-scale projects in the public sector and in industry. Their mediation report, published in March 2015, was approved by the Board of Directors of the HBP.
Human Brain Project press release: European Commission and HBP signed H2020 Framework Partnership Agreement
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