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EMBL: 'Well Prepared' to Address 'Big' Science Despite Loss Due to Dip in EC Funding

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The European Molecular Biology Laboratory is "well prepared" to tackle challenges posed by the growth of 'big' science as it begins planning its research and operations strategy for the five years starting in 2012, Director General Iain Mattaj said in the institution's annual report for the fiscal year ended March 31.

The report showed a decline in grant funding, especially by the European Community, that pushed EMBL into the red.

EMBL said it will address the need for more infrastructure following the torrent of new sequencing data wrought by next-generation sequencing, as well as the need for greater interdisciplinary and international collaboration in developing its 2012-2016 EMBL Programme, which will form the basis of the five-year budget to be decided by its 20 member states. EMBL has already begun the process of developing that strategy, according to Mattaj.

"Our science is getting bigger and so are its challenges, but we are well prepared," Mattaj said in the annual report.

According to the report, EMBL finished 2009-10 with a €4 million ($5.2 million) loss in 2009-10, compared with an approximately €6.9 million surplus for the previous year. The loss followed reduced grant funding by the EC, the largest of 10 external grant funding sources listed by the EMBL. The EC awarded €11.7 million in grants during 2009-10, down 31 percent from €16.9 million in 2008-09.

"We expect EC funding to continue to fluctuate between €12 million [to] €15 million, as it did over the last five years," Lena Raditsch, an EMBL spokeswoman, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

She said external funding is subject to fluctuations and depends on various factors that include availability of suitable grants, eligibility criteria, and the economy.

And while the EC's share of external grant funding fell this past year to 34 percent from 42 percent a year ago, it is still the highest share of external grant funding provided to EMBL, out of 10 sources for such funding listed in the report. Also decreasing its grant funding to EMBL in 2009-10 were:

• The Wellcome Trust, which awarded about €4.2 million during 2009, compared with €5.2 million a year earlier;
• The DFG, or German Research Foundation, to €1.4 million from about €1.5 million;
• The International Human Frontier Science Program Organization, to €457,000 from €492,000;
• The Volkswagen Foundation, to €243,000 from €294,000.
• And "Other" sources, to €2.7 million from €4.7 million.

Four other sources of external grants increased their funding during 2009-10 from the previous year. External funding accounted for about 22 percent of the overall 2009-10 budget.

EMBL also recorded dips in internal funding, and other receipts, while expenses rose almost 3 percent to almost €160.5 million from €156.3 million.

The EC decline in grants surpassed a €3.5 million year-to-year increase in contributions to EMBL from member states — to €86.4 million from €82.9 million in 2008-09.

Not counted in the member state contributions figure was a one-time contribution from Germany toward the EMBL Advanced Training Facility, a 17,000 square-meter (183,000 square-foot) conference and event venue that officially opened in March at EMBL's main laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. The value of the contributions shrank to more than €1.6 million in 2009 went from €2.6 million in 2008.

EMBL offered several examples of upcoming science challenges in its annual report. Among them:

* Genomics Core Facility: EMBL increased from three to four its number of next-gen sequencing machines last month, and acknowledged that in the future, it will be imperative that the facility upgrades its software and IT support and strengthens its bioinformatics expertise in order to ensure that the increase in data is met with a similar growth in analytical capacity.

Toward that end, Raditsch said "In 2011 the facility will hire staff with bioinformatics expertise which has become necessary with the acquisition of high-throughput sequencing equipment."

* Cell Biology and Biophysics and Structural Biology Units: "A new transmission electron microscope will be purchased to complement existing electron microscopy facilities as well as a new laser scanning microscope," Raditsch said.

The units, located at EMBL Heidelberg, will be refurbished as part of an ongoing set of renovations now in progress at the main laboratory building, which was built in the 1970s. These include conversion of space at the back of the building for the central IT facilities and the Advanced Light Microscopy Core Facility, and renovations to the containment building.

* EMBL-EBI: The EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute is leasing two new data centers in London that were completed and ready for use as of April, using £10 million received from the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The EBI core services will be migrated and fully operational from the data centers "by the end of 2010," Raditsch said.

The leased data centers have a capacity of 3.8 petabytes of available raw storage — data not in a format for use by the resource users — which equates to about 3 petabytes of storage for the EBI core services.

With the addition of the external data centers, EMBL-EBI’s stored data is expected to total 12 petabytes, including data replication, mirrors etc., by the end of this year, Raditsch said.

"The primary benefit of these extra data centres will be increased robustness, improved access to the flood of biological information via the web, programmatic interfaces and downloading data, and the flexibility to keep track with future data growth. Data requests will be shared between the two centres and each centre will be fully independent," Raditsch said.