Nautilus

Access to biological databases must be guaranteed

The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR) contains the most reliable and up-to-date genomic information available on the most widely used model organism in the plant kingdom. But TAIR now faces collapse: the US National Science Foundation (NSF) is phasing out funding after 10 years as the data resource’s sole supporter.

According to an Editorial in Nature this week (462, 252; 2009), “TAIR’s plight is emblematic of a broader crisis facing many of the world’s biological databases and repositories. Research funding agencies recognize that such infrastructures are crucial to the ongoing conduct of science, yet few are willing to finance them indefinitely. Such agencies tend to support these resources during the development phase, but then expect them to find sustainable funding elsewhere. Unfortunately, that is not easy.” Other funding agencies and private firms are not likely to step in to provide long-term support, even for relatively modest repositories and databases.

It is time for a whole new approach, argues the Editorial. “Front-line biology cannot function without these resources, so solutions must be found at both national and international levels.

Governments must ensure that at least one of their national funding agencies has money specifically set aside for the long-term support of bioresource infrastructures. A good model to emulate would be the United Kingdom’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which allows databases and other such resources to apply for ring-fenced funding, saving them from having to compete with hypothesis-driven grants, which are the agencies’ mainstay.

But action is also needed on the international front. The sharing of bioresources does not and should not stop at national borders. For example, only about a quarter of TAIR users are based in the United States. China is the second biggest user at around 12%, followed by Japan at around 10%. This is not atypical. Yet it is difficult for a single national agency to justify maintaining a resource for the rest of the world. What is required is an international cost-sharing organization that could fund competitively selected infrastructures, large and small.

An international solution may be a long time coming. In the meantime, bioresource infrastructures might be wise to invest some time in public relations, giving paymasters a greater understanding of the consequences of their decisions.”

See also a related News story in the same issue of Nature (462, 258-259; 2009): Japanese science faces deep cuts.

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