Windfall for European Databank

This article appears in Science 18 May, 2001 (Vol. 292, pp 1275)

The European Union has come to the rescue of the continent's premier repository of DNA and protein sequence information. As Science went to press, the E.U. was preparing to announce that it would help provide a roughly 50% boost in the $11 million annual budget of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI). The cash injection, to come over the next 3 years, will fund four new projects, including repositories of data from "gene chips" and protein-protein interactions. These projects, in turn, will help provide much-needed operating funds for EBI.

This is the second major piece of good news that the financially troubled EBI, located near Cambridge, U.K., has received in the past 6 months. Last December, the governing council of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany--EBI's parent organization--agreed to bail out the institute after E.U. officials had decided to stop funding routine operating costs for a number of European research centers (Science, 5 November 1999, p. 1058, and 8 December 2000, p. 1869). "This is a day for celebration," says EBI co-director Graham Cameron. "It is the biggest dollop of money ever put into [European] bioinformatics infrastructure."

The groundwork for the E.U.'s generosity was laid last November, when Philippe Busquin, research commissioner at the European Commission--the E.U.'s executive wing--earmarked $22 million for genome projects involving databases and animal disease models. This week's announcement that a significant chunk of these funds will go to the EBI represents a partial relaxation of spending rules that some scientists feel are too stringent. "The struggle has been to fund research proposals that are not directly linked to the simple maintenance of databases," explains Carlos Martinez-Riera of the research directorate. Indeed, both E.U. and EBI officials stress that the money was awarded only after the EBI and other partners submitted proposals for new programs rather than for ongoing costs. Although the philosophy behind the funding rules has not changed, Martinez-Riera says, the new EBI funding in practice will help sustain the institute. "We have met each other in the middle," he says.

The E.U. money will fund four new projects: a database for information derived from "DNA arrays," which monitor the expression of thousands of genes at once; a data bank of three-dimensional protein structures; a database of biochemical interactions between proteins; and a project to integrate several existing EBI databases so that researchers can conduct more sweeping searches. The EBI, slated to receive $11.3 million for these projects over the next 3 years, will carry them out in collaboration with 30 other labs in 11 European countries. EBI's partners will share an additional $5.7 million in E.U. funding. "This kind of science creates its record in electronic form," says Cameron. The E.U. funds, he says, should better position EBI to "carry on its crucial role as a custodian of this record."

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