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Environmental Factor, June 2012

Leadership develops data initiative

By Eddy Ball

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

“As the Institute embarks on crafting a new strategic plan and redefining future directions,” Birnbaum explained, “science and services supporting the information and research needs of the Institute must evolve as well.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As toxicologists and other scientists accumulate exponentially greater volumes of information, they are faced with the challenge of managing the growing terabytes of data.

In a talk May 8 at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., shared the Institute’s strategy for moving NIEHS towards a more collaborative approach to science and the infrastructure required to enhance discovery with its new e-Science Data Coordination initiative. Birnbaum and representatives of other agencies spoke during the federal perspective segment of Building for Better Decisions: Multi-Scale Integration of Human Health and Environmental Data, (http://www.toxicology.org/ai/meet/cct_b4bd.asp#program)  organized and primarily sponsored by the Society of Toxicology.

Joining Birnbaum in the federal perspective segment were representatives of data integration efforts underway at the EPA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Supporting big science in a time of limited resources

As Birnbaum explained, NIEHS and NTP have major interests in maximizing the Institute’s substantial investment in research, by promoting secondary data analyses, merging existing data resources, and coordinating efforts by research groups to address common and prevalent diseases. Environmental data coordination offers an efficient and cost-effective strategy for accelerating the translation of new and existing information about genetic and environmental interactions into clinical and public health practice.

Federal agencies also need to meet new challenges posed by the evolution of science, as more and more large-scale, multi-author studies generate enormous amounts of data that can strain existing data management infrastructure.

“The small-science approach to management and sharing of digital biomedical research data is anachronistic,” Birnbaum told her audience. “It’s at variance with the growing emphasis, both in U.S. policy and around the world, on open access to scientific data, and it may put the results of important research investments at risk and impede long-term access to valuable scientific resources.”

Integrating databases is the foundation for a new data integration paradigm

Birnbaum pointed to the success of ongoing efforts to expand the NIEHS Chemical Effects in Biological Systems (CEBS) database that includes studies of the biological context of response to chemicals, environmental agents, genetic changes, and physical agents. From its inception in 2005, the library accessible through CEBS has grown from 12 to more than 9200 articles, with plans to integrate even more NTP and public sources over the next year, including the DrugMatrix® database, one of the world’s largest toxicogenomics reference resources ever assembled, acquired in 2011.

Digital technology can make data openly accessible to scientists, reducing data management burdens, formalizing generalizable and replicable science, and enabling new kinds of data-driven science. As Birnbaum reminded attendees, a comprehensive plan must also address the complex managerial and ethical considerations of data integration, which include at least the following three elements:

  • Data management and sharing standards for the entire lifecycle of various kinds of digital data.
  • Compliance of researchers with relevant internal and external standards and requirements.
  • Criteria for deciding the appropriate level of management and preservation.

Birnbaum has selected NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., and Special Advisor Allen Dearry, Ph.D., to serve as leads on the new e-Science Data Coordination initiative.


Allen Dearry, Ph.D.

Dearry is the NIEHS liaison for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Data Initiative.(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Rick Woychik, Ph.D.

Woychik, above, and Dearry will build an infrastructure for the initiative with resources in the NIEHS Office of the Deputy Director and Library and Information Services Branch. Birnbaum said there would be fundamental changes in current data management and dissemination practices.(Photo courtesy of Rick Woychik)


Recent stories about data management, sharing, and integration

Workshop seeks to expand and improve data sharing Nearly 100 environmental health researchers, NIEHS program administrators, and other interested government officials gathered Feb. 6-7 in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Presidential advisor discusses Health Data Initiative  — U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer Todd Park gave a spirited talk April 5 at NIEHS about the Health Data Initiative.

GEMS goes transdisciplinary with spring meeting The agenda was designed to highlight emerging environmental issues, including the need to develop comprehensive data management strategies.



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