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BBSRC's New Strategic Plan Focuses on Bioinformatics, Systems Biology

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council said it will spend the next five years promoting basic research and increased development of bioinformatics and systems biology, among initiatives envisioned as part of a revised three-prong life sciences strategy unveiled today.

The BBSRC's new Strategic Plan 2010-2015, presented by the agency's Chief Executive Douglas Kell, identified three priorities it said will underpin future research funding decisions by the BBSRC. Those priorities, he said, include basic bioscience, where agency-funded research "will help provide better health and improved quality of life for more years."

In addition to basic science and the two other priorities, according to the plan, the BBSRC will continue to support multidisciplinary research in bioimaging, 'omics' technologies, and biomolecular characterization, as well as provide increased interdisciplinary training of researchers in mathematical, computational, and systems biology. It also plans more emphasis on research at the undergraduate level and more support for translating ideas into commercial products that benefit the UK's economy.

"We will promote technology development, strengthen the associated skills base, and embed the latest equipment in service facilities," the strategic plan declared. "As bioscience becomes increasingly quantitative, there is also an urgent need to raise the mathematical and computational skills of biologists at all levels."

In addition to basic research, the BBSRC set as strategic priorities the advancement of biofuels and industrial raw materials from renewable biological sources as lower-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels; and "food security," where, in an 11-minute video announcing the plan, Kell said council-funded bioscience "will help to provide a sustainable supply of affordable, nutritious, and safe food for [the] growing global population."

"Building on strength, this five-year plan continues to move UK bioscience forward to exploit new and exciting ways of working and thinking. We will ensure that UK bioscience stays world-class and delivers significant social and economic benefits," the plan promised.

Among the tools, technologies, and facilities the agency has pledged to develop are:

• Bioinformatics, from high-throughput genomic and proteomic analysis, to 'new bioinformatics' resources such as semantic computing and new web tools, with emphasis on growing and integrating data resources, ensuring that hardware and software are "accessible to, and used by, a wide range of bioscience users;" training professionals in their use; and encouraging new communities and services. BBSRC also pledged to support the European Life-Science Infrastructure for Biological Information, or ELIXIR, a consortium of 32 organizations from 13 countries developed in 2008 to create a sustainable infrastructure for biological information in Europe.

• Integrative and systems biology, by promoting those approaches "more routinely" in research focused on the strategic priorities, promoting development of the SysMO initiative designed to let project groups across Europe share data and models, and fostering collaboration between BBSRC's Systems Biology Centres and other researchers funded by the agency. "BBSRC's goal is for researchers routinely to apply computational and mathematical modeling techniques to high-quality quantitative biological data, and to use the models generated to test new hypotheses and inform experimental strategies," the plan stated.

• Digital organisms, a research field in which "the UK is well placed to take a leading role in this long-term, international challenge," according to the plan.

• Genome Analysis Centre, which the agency said "will provide national capability, including expertise in bioinformatics," toward the development and application of sequencing in animals, plants, and non-medical microbes.

• Diamond Light Source, the UK national particle accelerator, or synchrotron, in South Oxfordshire. The synchrotron's beams of x-rays, infrared, and ultraviolet light have aided in the study of biological structures. BBSRC said its commitment to the facility would support research on interactions between biomolecules.

"From the molecular to the systems level, BBSRC will fund research, people, and institutions wherever they are found, and across our remit," Kell pledged.

Kell is soliciting comments on the plan at the agency's blog, and on Twitter.

The plan presents three "enabling" themes the BBSRC says "require clear actions over and beyond this planning period," including knowledge exchange, innovation, and skills through BBSRC support of what the plan termed "high-quality PhD training to ensure new researchers develop the necessary breadth of skills, including leadership and management, the ability to communicate research outputs, and ethical awareness."

The second theme focuses on exploiting new ways of working, from new tools and facilities to a greater sharing of data, in part by targeting, in the plan's words, "potential new user communities, hardware architectures and facilities, and 'biologist-friendly' software solutions."

The third theme focuses on partnerships by organizations within the UK, and between them and international researchers. While BBSRC and the UK's six other research councils have teamed up on training as well as international and multidisciplinary research, the plan said, the agency will review its relationships with those councils and other funders "to insure integration and continuity of funding between disciplines," particularly where agency-funded research is applied in other fields, from medicine and healthcare to environmental services and industries.

The enabling themes are revised from an earlier version of the plan presented to industry groups for consultation last summer. The other themes in the summer version were integrative and systems biology, "tools, technologies and facilities," and strengthening computational resources or "exploiting big data."

The latest strategic plan comes about a month after Alistair Darling, the UK's finance minister, unveiled a pre-budget report that projected £5 billion ($8.1 billion) in cost savings by the 2012-13 fiscal year, in part by including "£600 million from higher education and science and research budgets."

That has alarmed advocates for higher research spending, who have cited a February 2009 promise by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to spend more for science research "than at any time in the country's history." Darling's report, subtitled Securing the Recovery: Growth and Opportunity, blamed uncertainty over the direction of the global economy due to the recession.

The BBSRC operates on a £450 million budget, up from £427 million in 2008-09. The agency supports research by some 1,600 scientists and 2,000 research students across the UK.

"The rate of progress will depend on our future budget," the strategic plan acknowledged, before adding: "But support for cutting edge bioscience and skills will remain the overarching priority."

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