EMBL rescue package keeps bioinformatics centre running

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The threat to the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) arising from the European Commission's refusal to fund its running costs seems to have been temporarily lifted.

At a meeting of the council of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg last week, delegates of EMBL's 16 member states agreed in principle to make up the shortfall of 5 million euros (US$5 million) for next year. EBI, based near Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is an outstation of EMBL.

Although EBI scientists are relieved, they have not relaxed completely. Some member states were unable to pledge money immediately, as their research budgets for next year are already fixed, and they will have to make the case for funds to be redistributed. A final decision awaits a special meeting of the EMBL council in March.

Britain will advance money if needed for the first three months of next year to keep EBI fully functioning. Britain is by far the biggest user of the institute, with the number of accesses each month averaging almost twice that of the next most frequent users — the United States and Germany. It is also a strong supporter of EBI's further development.

“This is a vote of confidence for EBI,” says Graham Cameron, the institute's joint director. “But we are not out of the woods yet.” Although relieved that immediate rescue funds have been found, Cameron stresses a widely held view that “EBI's budget needs to double if it is to become a competitive global force in bioinformatics”.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information, the institute's US equivalent, has well over twice its budget. Cameron fears that bioinformaticists, in heavy demand from industry as well as academia, will leave EBI if its prospects do not brighten soon.

Julio Celis, chairman of the EMBL council and head of the Danish Centre for Human Genome Research in Aarhus, shares this concern. “The council meeting last week recognized the importance of bioinformatics as central to many areas of biological and medical research in the next millennium”.

He points out that, while confident that member states will come up with the money at the March meeting, “this will only restore EBI's budget to its current level”. The council, he adds, will have to be prepared to step up a gear in financing the next EMBL research plan, which starts in 2001.

EBI's success is reflected in its number of accesses, which is rising by 20 per cent per month. The institute expects this to reach 25 per cent, and stay there, by the time the first draft of the human genome sequence is completed in the spring.

Bioinformatics is a huge growth area, and Europe must handle the fact that an entirely different level of stable funding must be made available, says Celis.

The new research commissioner, Philippe Busquin, is sympathetic to this view, but says that there is no way around the rules of the European Union's fifth Framework Programme (FP5). These allow funding for research projects, but not for the facilities themselves, although some scientists argue that the rules can be interpreted as allowing core support (see Nature 402, 3 & 4; 1999).

Busquin believes that both EBI and the European Mouse Mutant Archive (EMMA), a facility based near Rome that has also been thrown into crisis by withdrawal of European funds, must be funded at a European level. But neither can wait until new rules are designed for FP6, which should start in 2003.

At an informal meeting of the council of European research ministers, Busquin will launch a debate on infrastructure funding. He hopes to prompt member states to draw up agreements to finance EBI, EMMA and similar facilities, and to build a consensus for infrastructure funding in FP6.

A spokesman for the research commission points out that member states found a solution for EBI, “though not an ideal one”. Member states that voted against core funding of all infrastructure in FP5 may be more discriminating in FP6, he notes.

“It is somewhat ironic that there is so much unallocated money in the FP5 infrastructure pot yet, to solve the EBI crisis, EMBL has to persuade 16 different governments to divert money earmarked for other national purposes, at short notice,” says Glauco Tocchini Valentini, director of the CNR Institute ofCell Biology at Monterotondo and a member of EMBL council.

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Abbott, A. EMBL rescue package keeps bioinformatics centre running. Nature 402, 450 (1999) doi:10.1038/44907

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