Two of the biggest awards ever made for research have gone to boosting studies of the wonder material graphene and an elaborate simulation of the brain. The winners of the European Commission’s two-year Future and Emerging Technologies ‘flagship’ competition, announced on 28 January, will receive €500 million (US$670 million) each for their planned work, which the commission hopes will help to improve the lives, health and prosperity of millions of Europeans. The Human Brain Project, a supercomputer simulation of the human brain conceived and led by neuroscientist Henry Markram at the Swiss Federal Insitute of Technology in Lausanne, scooped one of the prizes. The other winning team, led by Jari Kinaret at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, hopes to develop the potential of graphene — an ultrathin, flexible, electrically conducting form of carbon — in applications such as personal-communication technologies, energy storage and sensors.
The size of the awards — matching funds raised by the participants are expected to bring each project’s budget up to €1 billion over ten years — have some researchers worrying that the flagship programme may draw resources from other research. And both winners have already faced criticism. Many neuroscientists have argued, for example, that the Human Brain Project’s approach to modelling the brain is too cumbersome to succeed (see Nature 482, 456–458; 2012). Markram is unfazed. He explains that the project will have three main thrusts. One will be to study the structure of the mouse brain, from the molecular to the cellular scale and up. Another will generate similar human data. A third will try to identify the brain wiring associated with particular behaviours. The long-term goals, Markram says, include improved diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases, and brain-inspired technology. “It’s a very bold project,” says Mark Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, adding that it will “no doubt spawn unexpected new research directions, probably to help develop supercomputing and medical robotics”. No one knows exactly what data will be needed to simulate the human brain, he says — “the Human Brain Project will help us find out”.