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NIH Undertakes “Big Data” Initiatives

December 14, 2012—The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will undertake new efforts to build up and integrate extremely large datasets in biomedical research and to develop new informatics tools for managing and analyzing these resources.  Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., deputy director, NIH, presented two broad initiatives: Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) and InfrastructurePlus.

The initiatives were presented at last week’s meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD).  The initiatives, outlined by Dr. Tabak, implement recommendations of the Data and Informatics Working Group released in June 2012 [see Washington Highlights, March 16].  Dr. Tabak echoed comments by the working group, and others, that biomedical research has arrived at a “space” earlier reached by high energy physics, astronomy, and other physical sciences in the need to collect and analyze millions of gigabytes of information, not only in genomic research, but in many other fields, and will be driven further by the development of electronic medical records for nearly the entire U.S. population.

The first initiative, BD2K, seeks to maximize the value of data to the entire biomedical research community, and includes inventorying and cataloguing new and existing data resources, developing and disseminating new methods and software to analyze these data, and enhanced training.  The second initiative, InfrastructurePlus, focuses on improving systems and resources within the NIH. 

Both initiatives will be overseen by trans-NIH advisory councils chaired by the NIH Chief information officer and the chief data scientist, the latter being a new position for which candidates are yet to be recruited.

The NIH will rely on workshops, including extramural researchers, in developing further details for implementation, but Dr. Tabak did note the agency’s intent to issue a request for applications (RFA) for investigator-initiated data centers of excellence in FY 2013, eventually to award up to 15 centers by FY 2014-15.  He also noted intent to develop two to five NIH-specified centers, on topics developed through workshops, for possible awards in FY 2014.  The proposed training enhancements also fall into two general categories: development of individuals with extensive understanding of informatics and providing a more generalized knowledge of informatics and data analysis to all new scientists.

A central theme in the working group report and Dr. Tabak’s presentation was to get all NIH institutes and centers to work in coordination on these topics.   Comments from ACD members themselves also called for extensive collaboration with other federal agencies, including the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, and non-governmental sectors as well.


Stephen Heinig
Director, Science Policy
Telephone: 202-828-0488


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