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NIH Advised To Establish Research, Education Centers For Bioinformatics


WASHINGTON--To meet the biomedical field's increasing demands for skilled computational biologists, an advisory panel submitted a report this month urging the US National Institutes of Health to establish a national network of bioinformatics research and education centers. The report, the "Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative," was presented June 3 by a working group on biomedical computing to the institutes' chief, Harold Varmus, who reportedly commented that it was "excellent" and "painstakingly done."

Of the group's four main recommendations, the first directed the institutes to establish between five and 20 interdisciplinary "national programs of excellence" that would encompass all elements of biomedical computing and become integral to educating biomedical-computation researchers. Programs could vary in size, the group suggested, describing, for example, one in which three to five researchers in complementary disciplines could receive $1.5 million a year to investigate one problem. Larger programs could be given up to $8 million a year, the report said.

NIH should also "rally new and important bioinformatics efforts" to build databases and tools for storing, curating, analyzing, and retrieving expanding volumes of biological information, the group urged. The goal, it said, is a "system of interoperable databases."

Third, the report recommended that NIH provide additional resources and incentives for basic research--through R01 grants--to support those who are inventing, refining, and applying the tools of biomedical computing.

Finally, the report instructed NIH to nurture creation of a scalable national computer infrastructure. NIH should provide funding for greater computing capacity, both local and remote, to enable biomedical researchers to meet their computing needs beyond what their desktop machines can provide, it said.

David Lipman, director of NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information and a member of the group that drafted the recommendations, said implementing them would benefit bioinformatics in both academic research and on the commercial side. "With this plan, the hope is to be able to train people as quickly as possible to do this work," said Lipman.

The biggest challenge for the development of bioinformatics personnel is a "chicken and egg problem" where there is a shortage not only of people in the field, but also of experts to train more students, even when centers are established for that purpose, said Lipman. "There are only so many senior people around who could help organize and run these centers and do the training in a good way, so you can't accelerate one beyond the other." Achieving that balance will not be easy, but "that's what peer review is all about," he added.

Larry Hunter, chief of molecular statistics and bioinformatics at NIH's National Cancer Institute and president of the International Society for Computational Biology, which submitted its own recommendations to the working group in a letter, said the report is an important step. "NIH has begun to recognize the central importance of computing in the future of biology and medicine," he said. Many of the society's ideas were echoed in the final report, Hunter added.

Calling the establishment of national programs an "excellent" recommendation, Hunter agreed with Lipman that the need for more bioinformatics leaders is crucial, because "effective training requires a critical mass of faculty in many areas. National centers of excellence seem to me to be a way to try to build such critical mass."

The findings should also get the attention of university administrators who have not shown much interest in the field so far, said Hunter. "Unlike other fields in science at universities, bioinformatics often requires the cooperation of several deans--for example, of an engineering school and the graduate school--in securing faculty positions, hiring and promotion policies, and other resources needed to attract top people. New NIH money could have a way of encouraging university administrators to be more open to the needs of interdisciplinary teaching and research," Hunter explained.

He added that competition among universities to get these new NIH grants is "likely to spark growing interest even among those that do not ultimately get an award."

--Matthew Dougherty

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