By: Tad Davenport, Ph.D.
Funding for key data resources in jeopardy
The goal of science is to push boundaries of knowledge. In a letter to John Locke, Isaac Newton famously wrote about his own discoveries, saying: “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The pace of scientific discovery is accelerating, and the findings accumulate rapidly – this means that the giants whose shoulders we stand on today have never been quite so gigantic nor have they ever grown so quickly.
Increasingly, biomedical researchers rely on curated databases such as UniProt, OMIM, FlyBase and others to rapidly sort through enormous (and rapidly growing) volumes of information. These databases provide digestible, searchable access to descriptions of protein function and interactions, post-translational modifications, mutations associated with disease, and changes in protein and RNA levels during the development of model organisms including fruitflies and zebrafish. These databases are essential for generating hypotheses and designing experiments to understand basic biology and disease mechanisms.
A recent report by Jocelyn Kaiser for Science magazine describes the fiscal challenges faced by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in supporting the maintenance of these databases. It is estimated that over $110 million or the NIH’s $30 billion annual budget is spent on maintaining these databases, and the cost is likely to continue growing in parallel with rapid expansion of genomic and other data. To address the long-term “sustainability problem”, leaders of NHGRI have initiated discussions on alternative funding sources and mechanisms, including subscriptions and use-based fees. The enormous value of these databases for scientific progress is difficult to estimate, and every effort should be made to ensure easy accessibility for all researchers. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)
Unfilled Vials – Accelerating and Prioritizing Vaccine Development
Vaccines are a highly cost-effective means of preventing transmission of infectious agents. Unfortunately, vaccine development does not always make fiscal sense for pharmaceutical companies. In order to encourage pharmaceutical companies to take on the substantial financial burden of developing and testing vaccines in human clinical trials, it is likely that public-private partnerships, designed to mitigate the financial risk to companies, will play a critical role.
In a recent Science magazine article, Jon Cohen describes some recently proposed mechanisms for igniting private interest in developing and testing vaccines for pathogens that do not typically impact wealthy nations. One important step toward this goal is generating consensus regarding which pathogens should be prioritized for vaccine development.
Based on a poll of twelve vaccine experts, Science magazine generated its own list of the top ten pathogens that should be prioritized in designing new vaccines. Number one on the list was Ebola Sudan, a pathogen known and feared by many in the United States and other wealthy countries. However, a number of the pathogens on this list are less well-known in the United States (but no less important), including Chikungunya, Schistosoma, and Hookworm. In ranking the pathogens, the contributors considered the pathogen’s impact on human populations, its transmissibility, its “potential to cause economic and social chaos”, and importantly, the feasibility of developing an effective vaccine (based on the immunity generated by natural infection, or preliminary results from tests in animal models). Cohen’s article enlightens the reader by presenting a balanced review of the challenges of vaccine development and a rational mechanism by which much-needed vaccines might be brought to market. (Jon Cohen, Science News)
The Future of Science
Interviews: Big ideas for better science
In a 2015 year-end interview with Kendall Powell of Nature magazine, four notable scientists made recommendations for how to improve the practice and culture of scientific research.
Jin-Soo Kim from Seoul National University suggests that eliminating the one-directional anonymity of the peer review process and openly crediting reviewers would reduce the potential conflict of interest in which a competing scientist is asked to review a colleague’s paper.
Jean-Baptiste Mouret at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, recommends improving the openness and accessibility of computer programs used in research, with numerous potential benefits including better reproducibility and faster scientific progress.
Maria Cristina De Sanctis at the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome emphasizes the importance of encouraging women in science from the very earliest ages.
And Danielle Edwards from the University of California, Merced recommends instilling more humanity in scientific research by providing a safer, more understanding work environment for people with varied experiences of life and its associated challenges.
These can be thought of as “New Year’s Resolutions” for science. How do you resolve to improve science, and more broadly, the world, this year? (Kendall Powell, Nature)
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