In 1999, the National Institutes of Health appointed an external advisory group to prepare what became known as the BISTI (Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative) report, which called for better coordination of bioinformatics efforts across the NIH. Four years later, the NIH has finally found someone to head the initiative in Eric Jakobsson, a physiologist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
“Things do take a while to happen,” remarked Jakobsson on the time it has taken to fill the position. But don’t expect BISTI to maintain the glacial pace it’s exhibited so far. Since taking the helm on May 21 as the first director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Jakobsson has already taken steps to implement his vision for biomedical computing across NIH.
“We really need to do a big, nationally distributed software engineering project,” Jakobsson told BioInform. “I mean ‘we’ as a community of biomedical computational scientists — people who are in-house, people who are supported by NIH for the development of biomedical computing, but also people who are supported by NIH anywhere in the healthcare professions who use biomedical computing.”
The goals of such a project, according to Jakobsson, would be improved interoperability between software components as well as the creation of a biomedical computing infrastructure that would serve the needs of researchers well into the coming decades. “We really need to make biomedical computing as good as desktop computing in the sense that, for example, your imaging software should interact in a seamless way with some underlying molecular data that the images that you’re seeing relate to,” he said.
The Road to Interoperability
Jakobsson said that the groundwork for the coordinated infrastructure effort has already been laid as part of a recent NIH-wide roadmap exercise in which each institute projected what it plans to accomplish over the next 10 years. The computational biology roadmap is in place, Jakobsson said, “and we’re just now in the process of bringing [it] to the upper reaches of NIH administration.”
While the outcome of the roadmap exercise remains uncertain, Jakobsson is confident that his vision will gain approval. “There isn’t really a question of the overall goal of providing the kind of computational environment that I’m talking about,” he said. “The question is, what are the detailed strategies, what are the priorities for what we do next? And that will emerge somewhere over the next few months or so.”
In his assessment of the NIH bioinformatics resources so far, Jakobsson said he’s found “a lot more gaps than there are overlaps,” making BISTI’s priority not one of minimizing redundancy between bioinformatics efforts at the 27 NIH institutes, but improving interoperability between a diverse range of tools, from sequence analysis to biomedical imaging to structural analysis and modeling.
The drive toward interoperability will likely impact NIH funding for future bioinformatics projects. Support for one-off software packages that are “incidental to a particular research project” will likely fall by the wayside in favor of projects that support a sustainable infrastructure. “We really have to craft funding programs that support that kind of infrastructure development,” Jakobsson said.
Despite being a newcomer to the inner workings of the federal funding machinery, Jakobsson said that his experience at the NCSA provided valuable experience in just the kind of large-scale infrastructure initiative he has in mind. “NCSA was my window into large projects,” he said. “It gave me a view into putting projects together that went way beyond a single research lab, where you had to really gather quite a few people together to do a coordinated thing.”
Pointing out that NCSA gave rise to a great deal of today’s Internet infrastructure, including Eudora, the File Transfer Protocol, and the Mosaic browser that underlies Internet Explorer, Jakobsson noted that “NCSA always had the philosophy that we weren’t just a cycle shop, but we were out to make the machines usable. I think that’s the thing that NIH sees now, is that there’s this tremendous amount of compute power that is growing very, very rapidly, there already are terrifically useful applications, but there’s a next stage that requires a higher level of coordination to fully realize the potential.”
The task will be challenging but not impossible, according to Jakobsson. “It’s like putting a man on the moon as opposed to something that’s really hard, like knowing that you’re going to be able to get a vaccine for a new infectious disease, where there may be many, many unforeseen complexities associated with the biology that you don’t know going in,” he said. “This is different; this is an engineering problem, so we know we can do it.”