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BISTI Consortium Tackles Several NIH-Wide Bioinformatics Topics at Latest Meeting

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BISTIC, the NIH-wide consortium of biomedical computing departments, continued to sort through a number of hot bioinformatics issues facing the agency at its recent meeting held on November 19.

In addition to coordinating the multitude of activities presented by its 29 member institutes, BISTIC (Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative Consortium) is currently dealing with two key issues that override its day-to-day administrative duties, according to James Cassatt of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who serves as chair of the consortium.

Cassatt told BioInform that one of the group’s priorities right now is the launch of the NIH centers of excellence in biomedical computing — an initiative that was recommended in April 2000 by the BISTI implementation group’s initial report.

“This has been left to the various institutes,” said Cassatt, which have limited the number of active centers to only two, despite much broader interest in the program. Cassatt said BISTIC is in the final stages of announcing an NIH-wide center.

Also at issue within the NIH right now is the agency’s role in bioinformatics software development. The question, said Cassatt, is “How to do it within the existing mechanism?”

Again, the disparate work of the multiple institutes within the agency requires a greater degree of focus on the part of BISTIC.

“Some or our concerns are around maintenance — how do you support maintenance of existing software? Some of this doesn’t appear to be intellectually challenging, because it’s more engineering than discovery, and yet it’s vital to the mission of NIH because many of our grantees are totally dependent on the kinds of software that have been developed and will continue to be developed.” Other issues, such as integration and interoperabilty, are also on the table.

Cassatt said the group is reviewing a petition working its way through the bioinformatics community requesting that the NIH and other public funding agencies endorse the release of open source versions of bioinformatics software developed using public funds [BioInform, 09-10-01; the petition is available at www.openinformatics.org].

“The NIH does not yet have an official position” on the petition, said Cassatt.

The agency wants to make all scientific discoveries public and available, Cassatt said, “and we have no problem with people making money off of them. How this connects to the open source movement I don’t know yet.”

Additionally, the closing date for applications for the head of a new center for bioinformatics and computational biology at NIGMS has passed and Cassatt is currently reviewing the applicants. He expects to hire the new head, who will also take his place as acting dirctor of BISTIC by early summer.

— BT

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