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September 3, 2013

NIH Director Pledges Openness for BD4K Initiative

Alex Woodie

When groundbreaking medical research (hopefully) comes out of new big data R&D centers being set up by the National Institute of Health, it will be driven by a wide swath of American people and organizations, an NIH director said in a recent interview.

In July, the NIH announced that it would spend nearly $100 million over the next four years to set up a series of six to eight big data centers of excellence around the country that will explore better ways to help biomedical researchers store, manage, and analyze large sets of data, with the goal of driving breakthroughs in medical care.

As part of the program, the NIH opened the funding opportunities of its BD2K Centers of Excellence to people outside of the traditional medical research community, including data scientists and others who are expert in developing, integrating, analyzing, and managing large data sets.

That openness will continue after the research to include widespread sharing of the results, said Dr. Mark Guyer, the deputy director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and one of the executives leading the nine-month old BD2K program, in a recent interview with CTO Vision.

“We definitely see widespread data sharing, including across government, as key to rapid progress,” Guyer said. “The power of research comes from its results being shared openly and broadly.”

Guyer speaks from experience, as he spent 23 years with the National Human Genome Research Institute before being appointed deputy director of the NIH. It’s unknown at this point whether the BD2K initiative will deliver the kind of groundbreaking- and industry-creating breakthroughs that mapping the human genome delivered. But considering the rapid evolution of analytic tools and techniques, you probably wouldn’t want to bet much against it.

“For most of the history of biomedical research,” Guyer said in the CTO Vision interview, “the limiting factor was acquiring data to analyze. Now, new technologies have been developed that can generate enormous amounts of data, so data generation is no longer the limiting factor. For example, the ability to generate genomic sequencing data has improved more than a million-fold since the beginning of the Human Genome Project. Across biomedical research, the rate limiting stage now [is] how to operate on the data.”

Maintaining openness is key to ensuring the fruits of the project benefit the widest number of people possible. Guyer said the BD2K initiative gets input from outside of government, including through the NIH director’s advisory board and through public workshops.

“I would also like to underscore,” Guyer continued, “that commercial firms can apply for grants in this area, as long as they [like everyone else] play by our rules about open information and understand the requirements, and we encourage any who can add value to apply to our process.”

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