Informatics research may kill old-school databases

A move by the National Library of Medicine to fund informatics research is threatening the continuation of popular online databases where drug scientists can access vast stores of data specific to their research.

Particularly at risk, Nature reports, are investigator-driven databases. Francis Ouellette, a bioinformatician at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Toronto, tells the publication that is because "they don't fit the research-based standard model" used to dispense grants.

Valerie Florance, director of extramural programs at the library, tells Nature the funding withdrawal is not a reflection of how useful the various recipients are, just of the NLM's decision to move to funding "research and training" instead of infrastructure.

Of course, Big Data and informatics are the current "future" of drug research, but before that was possible, scientists often relied on basic databases to collect and store the data they couldn't manage on their own.

Among the databases slated to lose NLM money is Protégé, which provides open-source software for relating and organizing biological data. The service, which has 200,000 registered users, is managed by Mark Musen, a bioinformatician at California's Stanford University. The program, which has gotten millions of dollars from the NLM, may soon find itself on its own. Also at risk is the Biological Magnetic Resonance Data Bank (BMRB), which contains more than 7,500 entries that structural biologists use to research how proteins contort as they catalyze reactions.

Some research databases already are hooking up with other funding sources, even private companies. New England Biolabs, an Ipswich, MA-based laboratory-reagent company, will assume full financial responsibility for REBASE in 2014, when fed funds dry up. The database maintains data on where enzymes bind to and cut DNA. REBASE founder Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs, acknowledges that without federal unpinning, the future of the service is at the mercy of the market.

Private-public funding questions are popping up all over drug research and one has targeted Nature and other subscription-based publications that publish much of that research. Wellcome Trust, the U.K.'s largest private funder of medical research, in April said it no longer wants to pay for medical research that ends up guarded behind pay walls. Its proposals includes requiring that research funded by the charity become available free to the public within 6 months of publication. Since it pumps more than £600 million ($952 million) per year into medical research, that is a lot of strings. The charity's efforts are a direct assault on the model that the publishers of go-to journals such as Nature and Science have used to charge universities millions of dollars for access to academic research.

- here's the Nature story