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Peacekeepers in the Family Fight

August 2, 2014

The Organization for Computational Neurosciences (OCNS) overall is a supportive family that truly knows where it came from. I just attended an annual meeting, and I continue to be amazed by the excellent balance of computational and experimental concepts. The organization’s journal and meetings have stayed true to the general field of neuroscience, as opposed to allowing them to be narrowed toward other related fields such as artificial intelligence.

Yet all families have their share of internal fights, and OCNS is no different. First a small example, and then a very significant one. My small example is that of a senior researcher who consistently makes a point at annual meetings to criticize my posters to my face. He has done this three times! No time spent reading the whole poster or listening to my presentation. No thoughtful questions. Just an immediate criticism. Doesn’t really bother me though because he quickly walks away and the matter is completely over. And like all healthy families, others quickly step in to defend me. Oh well, there’s one in every family.

Now for the important example: the controversial Henry Markram. Dr. Markram was scheduled as a keynote speaker at the OCNS meeting and has been at the center of, not just one, but two controversially massive projects in computational neuroscience. The past controversy was the Blue Brain Project, and the more recent is the Human Brain Project. If you aren’t familiar with these, you can find plenty of info by Googling “henry markram controversy”. Here I’m only going to comment on what I saw in the OCNS family.

I was excited about hearing the inevitable discussion first hand during Markram’s visit. Unfortunately – and ironically – Markram’s home was burglarized, and his passport was reportedly stolen! However the brave Sean Hill filled in. He responded well to comments and questions about the open letter protesting the Human Brain Project. During the Q&A period following his talk, there were a few of the standard critical comments made in the open letter. What caught my attention most, however, were the public reminders by others that we are still a family. Besides the comments during Q&A, Frances Skinner started her keynote talk the following day with this idea.

I am sensitive to the peacekeepers in a family, partly due to my own family’s troubled history. I have typically found it easy to see both sides of a story, but I realize that isn’t easy for everyone. Civil debate and disagreement are actually healthy in a family. Every organization needs opinionated, assertive members. However, just enforcing rules of civility is not enough to make progress. The peacekeepers play an important role in helping both sides of an issue to move forward. It is my pleasure to see that there are peacekeepers alive and well in the OCNS.

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