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NIH Survey Highlights Obstacles, Spurs Support for Careers in Bioinformatics

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BETHESDA, Md.--In a survey conducted by the National Human Genome Research Institute here, 17 bioinformaticists at universities across the US identified five areas the institute should address to ensure that bioinformatics tools development keeps pace with genomic data production.

In response to the survey results, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is expected to announce three research career development programs especially for scientific disciplines with relevance to the Human Genome Project, according to Bettie Graham, the NIH researcher who conducted the phone survey.

Graham, program director of the research institute's division of extramural research, told BioInform the survey was a response to an apparent "need for nurturing and stimulating" of computational and mathematical biology applications to genomics and genetics research. "We felt that not enough people have been trained. That's what this report is about," said Graham.

Academics in fields including biology, biophysics, biomathematics, and computer science, were asked to describe barriers and opportunities that could be addressed by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) acting alone or in collaboration with the NIH or the private sector. The scientists identified infrastructure, career development, career paths in academia, research training, and research as trouble spots for the institute to target.

What's in the way?

Interviewees also told Graham about several barriers they face in trying to establish departments, programs, or foci for computational or mathematical biology within their institutions:

* Few institutions recognize computational and mathematical biology as areas worthy of departmental status;

* The physical and organizational separation of biology from computer sciences and math in academic institutes is an obstacle to smooth interactions;

* When growth within universities is restricted, decisions about which department should house interdisciplinary researchers can be difficult; and,

* Departments might not value the type of research being pursued--theoretical versus applied--by interdisciplinary scholars.

Still, Graham cited several institutions that have overcome these barriers. For instance, at the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Sciences at Rutgers University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, bioinformatics has become part of the universities' strategic plans, she reported. At Washington University in St. Louis, and at the University of Pennsylvania, bioinformatics departments were established to meet the computational biology needs of NHGRI-supported Genome Science and Technology Centers located there. And an ad hoc approach was successful among some individual faculty at Washington State Univers ity and the University of Southern California who work independently with graduate students on interdisciplinary projects.

Developing interdisciplinary curricula was another challenge scientists identified. Students are less attracted to degree programs requiring double course loads, yet few faculty have time to develop appropriate, comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum, interviewees told Graham. Grants for release time to develop interdisciplinary courses would be useful, the survey indicated.

Those responses were no surprise, Graham said, but taking a systematic approach to finding them out was necessary. "It was important that [these problems] became more than anecdotal. Now it becomes, 'you've identified a need, now what are you going to do about it?'" she said.

Research career development programs

Research funding will be the first thing. But Graham said that while interviewees unanimously agreed that more training programs are needed, they identified at least three obstacles scholars face when trying to secure interdisciplinary training grants. For one, scientists said, getting commitments from faculty in separate departments to collaboratively support interdisciplinary research is time-consuming and difficult.

Also, stipends for biologists tend to be far lower than those for computer scientists or mathematicians, interviewees told Graham, which can make attracting non-biologists to biology training programs impossible. And NIH's new policy of limiting tuition costs on training grants will make it difficult for institutions to start new or maintain existing programs, they commented.

Graham said that in response to the survey results, NHGRI's Special Emphasis Research Career Award, which "not a lot of people have been clamoring for," will be reissued. Also known as a Mentored Scientist Development Award, the K01 award since 1991 has provided an annual salary up to $75,000, up to $20,000 for research-related expenses, and tuition for three to five years for scientists working on technological developments critical to the success of the Human Genome Project. Graham noted that many of the academics she surveyed had never heard of the award.

NHGRI also plans to introduce two new awards within the next few months, Graham said. One will be an institutional award to scientists within academic institutions working on tools needed to mesh with biology to advance the Human Genome Project.

Graham said she expects the other to be a curriculum development award that will provide release time for faculty to develop interdisciplinary coursework related to genomics. Monetary values of those awards are not available, Graham said.

"Stipends for traditional training grants aren't competitive for these people who have industry salaries pulling at them," Graham said. Yet, academics she surveyed said they don't see big industry salaries luring a disproportionate number of scientists away from academia. Graham said in many instances, respondents told her about colleagues who opt repeatedly for academic freedom and teaching positions over lucrative industry jobs.

Respondents did, however, stress the need for industry support of academic bioinformatics programs. "For industry to partner with academia to ensure that there are sufficiently trained personnel to develop new knowledge is a must," Graham reported. And, respondents told her, industrial funds committed should be unrestricted to give the institutions the needed flexibility to use the funds to strengthen their research efforts where and when appropriate.

Complete results of the survey are available at http://www.nhgri.nih.gov/hgp/reports/bioinformatics.html.

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