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European Bioinformaticists Say EC s Funding Policy Jeopardizes Biology

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INXTON, UK--Two weeks after the news broke that the European Bioinformatics Institute here could suffer a 44 percent budget cut, EBI codirector Michael Ashburner told BioInform that, while he remained optimistic, no alternative funding solution had yet been found.

Since its creation in 1994, the institute, an outstation of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, had relied on the European Commission’s Fourth Framework Program for nearly half its budget. But the EC recently turned down EBI’s requests for the 1999-2002 period. Peter Kind, acting director for life sciences in the EC’s Directorate General for Research, told BioInform that the action was necessitated by changes in the framework’s funding regime.

Ashburner and 62 other public- and private-sector scientists cosigned a letter published in Nature November 4, calling the situation "extraordinary" and "particularly ironic given that we are on the verge of elucidating the entire human genome sequence." They warned that such a drastic reduction in EBI spending would jeopardize Europe’s standing in biological research. Graham Cameron, who codirects EBI with Ashburner, told Nature that several EBI-maintained genomic databases would have to be discontinued if a solution was not found.

Kind explained that the EC’s Fourth Framework Program, which financed EBI from 1994-1998, specifically allowed seed money to support development and maintenance of key biotechnology infrastructures. The Fifth Framework Program discontinued that policy, mandating instead uniform funding policies for all structures, "whether we’re talking about astrophysics or biotechnology," he said.

The European Mouse Mutant Archive in Italy and two Drosophila stock centers in Hungary and Sweden were also denied money to support what the EC deemed "routine operations." Instead, the EC encouraged each group to reapply by November 15 for monies available for "research, networking, and access projects."

Ashburner’s letter contrasted the EC’s commitment to biological research with levels shown by US and Japanese agencies. But Kind said that comparison is unfair.

Overall, about $600 million per year is available through the framework for life sciences research, including agriculture and fisheries as well as biomedicine and biotechnology, Kind said. The annual budget of the US National Institutes of Health is about 25 times larger, he noted. "Our union budget is a complement to what the EU member states spend," he added.

The Fifth Framework does earmark $500 million for infrastructure spending during the current four-year period, but the money is strictly intended "to add value to investments that European Union member states are making," Kind said.

Kind also contended that, because the framework program finances projects for short terms through a competitive process that awards only about one of every six applicants, "it is not sensible to do any long-term planning for an infrastructure that requires stable financing."

Ashburner acknowledged, "We have to distinguish between the short-term funding gap and the long term fiscal solution. I’m concerned with getting a long-term solution." He urged the EC to rethink its policy, which he said does not reflect the needs of the scientific community. Although biological research was once so small-scale that little infrastructure funding was necessary, now, Ashburner said, "particularly in genomics, it is quite different, requiring large-scale, often collaborative, research underpinned by robost infrastructure."

An article in the November 11 issue of Nature reported that Europe’s research commissioner had conceded that the infrastructure funding rules "interfere with research work in Europe," but said that a long-term solution would be up to EU countries.

Considering its parentage--the well-endowed European Molecular Biology Laboratory-- some observers doubted that EBI is in serious danger. EBI insiders remained hopeful that an EMBL Council meeting, scheduled for the end of this month would produce a solution.

EBI also has friends in high places. The Wellcome Trust and several pharmaceutical companies were rumored to be hashing out rescue plans. The mouse archive and Drosophila storage sites might not be so fortunate.

--Adrienne Burke

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