Richard Walker: Humanities and the Human Brain Project

human brain project

The Human Brain Project will use supercomputers to model our minds. Image by Gengiskanhg via Wikimedia Commons.

Last year was a banner year for brain research, at least financially speaking. Europe and the United States both launched what could amount to billion-dollar brain studies over the next decade. But before Europe’s Human Brain Project got running, there were rumors that the European Commission had axed the project’s funding proposal in a final stage of reviews.

“People actually phoned us up to commiserate and say, ‘It’s a great pity you didn’t get the grant,’” said Richard Walker, spokesman for the Human Brain Project. Walker, who helped write the proposal, never heeded the rumors, though. When an official call came two weeks later, announcing they had won 54 million Euros (about 75 million in US dollars) to fund a 30-month ramp-up period, he wasn’t surprised. “I knew our competitors and, this sounds a bit arrogant, but I thought we were better.”

At the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, the economist-turned-computer-engineer-turned-science-writer sat down with Out of the Fog to discuss what makes this project unique, what he hopes its scientists will accomplish and how to write billion-dollar grant proposals.

So I hear the project recently received a large award.

We won in January 2013 and we started the project officially in October.

What are its primary goals?

We have three basic goals. One is to advance basic neuroscience and basic understanding of the brain. Two is to apply that knowledge to develop computing technologies inspired by the brain. Three is to apply the same knowledge to find better ways of diagnosing and treating diseases of the brain.

The idea of building models of brains with computers has been around for decades. Can you talk about what’s been done in the past?

Yeah, I actually worked in artificial intelligence for quite a long time. The idea was always someone takes an interesting function – say, recognizing human speech or playing chess – and we program a machine to do that. To do that you make an algorithm, a set of rules. Brains don’t do that. There are no algorithms in my brain.

What is the Human Brain Project doing differently?

We’re building a brain model which you’re meant to be able to train to do a very wide range of different things. We’re not telling it what to do. We build a brain, we train the brain to do something, then we hope it does it. Then we compare it against the data from cognitive neuroscientists who measure real brains doing it.

So this must be a massive undertaking.

We’ve got 80 institutions from 22 different countries. We’ve got about youtube to mp3 150 principal investigators. That number is set to grow.

But you’re not all starting from square one?

The research underlying this has deeper roots. Nearly all the individual bits of research go back several years. We just formed a more perfect union than the individual states that existed before.

Speaking of, did you look for funding from any US sources?

No. We look for collaboration with US people. It’s extremely hard for Europeans to get NSF [National Science Foundation] or NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding, just as it’s extremely hard for Americans to get European funding. It’s a shame. It would be nice if it were easy both ways.

[Note: The Human Brain Project and the US BRAIN Initiative formally announced they will be collaborating in March.]

With so many people involved, isn’t collaboration a huge challenge?

We don’t believe we can do this all on our own. Understanding the brain is going to be a worldwide effort. One of our key products is a series of technology platforms that will allow other people to collaborate, which, from March 2016 onwards, will be open to the community. So I can run a simulation, but so can a scientist from outside my project.

Kind of like open source science?

Yeah, if you like. Not quite literally, but it’s the same spirit as that. Open data, too. We want to make our data available, we want to make our tools available. It’s only through big international collaboration that we can get the knowledge we need.

Can we talk about how you got the funding you need? What do you tell a funding agency beyond, “We want to understand how the brain works using computers?”

The first thing we do is make our objectives clear. Second thing you have to do, is you have to say how you want to achieve that. The third element is you tell them why it’s important; they want you to predict to the impact of your work. My personal belief – this is very personal, now, this is not the official line of the project – is that that’s an impossible intellectual task. Scientists do not know what the impact of their work is going to be.

So how do you write a proposal without overstating or understating what you think you will do?

We talk about it a lot internally. We say, “That’s too strong, that’s too weak.” But it’s a guessing exercise.

What would you change about grant writing?

In a perfect world, I would make a very short proposal for what I want to achieve and I outline how I want to achieve it, and say who I am. If Einstein says “I’m going to improve relativity theory,” I might believe him. If I say I’m going to improve it, I hope they deny me the grant.

How did you get into grant writing?

I like putting ideas together and I like writing. And I like literature. I read a lot of classical literature. I think that is something scientists would do well to do and science writers must do. There are people who make sentences better than you do.

And who are the best writers?

Oh, no. That’s a value judgement.  I don’t believe there’s a “who’s best,” but I can talk about who’s great.

Who are your favorites then?

Tolstoy is wonderful. Hemingway is wonderful, Fitzgerald is wonderful, Walt Whitman is wonderful. Stendahl and the great French authors are wonderful. There’s lots of wonderful literature out there.

How does literature translate into writing grants?

You have to have a story. You have to get rid of useless jargon, you have get rid of useless verbiage. And you’ll find as a writer, you get phrases you fall in to. You start using them because they become easy and they sound nice. Then you suddenly realize you’ve said it 16 times in the same grant proposal. It would be a good idea if you killed off 15 of the 16.

Do you have a grant writing style?

It depends on purpose. You can be short and exciting. You can be slow and lyrical. You can make people think. There are multiple styles that will do that, even for each of those goals.

Scientifically speaking, Is there one goal you’re most excited about?

I would like to see this brain simulation really work. It’s a radically new way of reproducing cognitive and behavioral functions. If we can demonstrate a small number of those, without tricking anybody, without deliberately working to get one function, I think we can be extremely satisfied. That’s enough for my career.


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