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National Science Foundation Firms Up Its FY 2002 Bioinformatics Funding Strategy

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Bioinformatics programs at the National Science Foundation are beginning to take shape. Speaking February 26 at a meeting of the Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative Consortium at the National Institutes of Health, W. Richards Adrion said that NSF plans to invest $15-20 million in bioinformatics activities in 2002. Adrion is the director of the Experimental and Integrative Activities Division within NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering.

While NSF officials expected an increase in their budget following the 13.5 percent hike in 2001, Adrion said that fact that the budget would likely get a much smaller increase should not affect the commitment to bioinformatics funding.

“Computational biology and bioinformatics activities have been supported for about 15 years hither and yon but in no focused way, primarily due to a lack of advocates within NSF,” Adrion said. “Science has become very interdisciplinary, but the universities traditionally are not, and we’re organized along the lines of the universities,” he added. “We’re just beginning to define some new programs.”

The NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, Directorate for Engineering, and Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering each oversee bioinformatics-related projects. The CISE, for example, manages the $200 million Information Technology Research initiative, under which a bioinformatics program will be established for 2002. The ITR provides small grants of up to a total of $500,000 over three years, group grants of up to $1 million per year for up to five years, and large grants of up to $3 million per year for up to five years.

With more support within the agency and bioinformatics solicitations planned for 2002, the biggest problem may be figuring out which divisions should be funding which projects. “It’s good for people to have multiple places to submit proposals, but we don’t want to confuse the community,” Adrion said. “Once we make some awards, it’ll be clear to everyone what we’re doing.”

In addition to its own programs, NSF is in the process of finalizing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to participate in DARPA’s new biocomputation initiatives, Adrion said. These include funding for the development of BioSpice, an open source modeling environment analogous to the Spice package for modeling electronic circuits. Like its predecessor, BioSpice would simulate multiple levels of organization, in this case from the molecular and cellular level up though tissues, organs, and systems.

Under the NSF-DARPA agreement, solicitations from the two agencies will be cross-referenced, and a co-funding mechanism will be established. Principal investigators from both groups would serve on panels to evaluate the software and recommend revisions, while the integration management function would reside at DARPA. DARPA and NSF also plan to develop a joint licensing policy for non- participating institutions.

—SCC

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