Germany Boosts Its Spending on Biocomputing

BONN--This month, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has called on national universities to develop and submit proposals for developing bioinformatics research centers to boost Germany's research competitiveness.

"We want to make university careers in biocomputing more appealing to young academics," explains Ingrid Ehses, coordinator of the DFG's projects on genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology. Currently, says Ehses, it is cumbersome to develop biocomputing groups at universities because rigid academic guidelines and habits interfere with the growth of the developing interdisciplinary field.

The DFG's call for proposals is intended to encourage universities to create a new research infrastructure and to take advantage of all regional resources. This would include collaborations with nonuniversity research facilities and biotech industries, not usually sought out by German academics.

Winning proposals will receive up to 50 million DM (US $25 million) over a period of 5 years. And in contrast to existing programs funded by the DFG and Ministry of Research and Education, such as Germany's Human Genome Project, the new initiative would require that winning proposals increase the number of young scientists trained in bioinformatics over the next decade. (Other than the training requirement, no further restrictions are being imposed.)

The bioinformatics initiative appears to be a reaction to the DFG's May report on genome research in Germany, which observed a severe shortage of activities in biocomputing and recommended increasing the genome research budget by 1 billion DM (US $500 million). Current biocomputing research groups in Germany are fairly small, and the number of faculty actively working in this area is limited to one, Ralf Hofestädt at the University of Magdeburg.

Klaus Schaefer, who teaches bioinformatics at the University of Konstanz, says that many senior scientists are not familiar with the biocomputing field. He adds that "usually the post-doc that runs the computer equipment of a research group is the only one to do some biocomputing." Schaefer compares the current development of biocomputing with "the time when they found the double helix" and tenured professors had to keep up by attending lectures at the Institute for Medical Genetics in Cologne. "That's what we might need now again for biocomputing."

Proposals (maximum 10 pages) must be submitted by 30 September 1999.

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