Video Tip of the Week: NHGRI’s funding portfolio structure

This week’s tip is very unusual. It’s not about a specific resource per se. It actually about all of them–well, at least the ones that get funding from the NHGRI mechanisms. This is a video of the recent meeting described on the NHGRI website as:

See videos from our live broadcast of the 69th meeting of the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research held Monday, September 9th. Among the topics discussed: the Supreme Court gene patenting decision, HeLa Genome Sequence, and updates on the Genomic Medicine Working Group and the NHGRI Smithsonian Genome Exhibition.

Timely and relevant stuff–and I really like the public outreach feature of that Smithsonian exhibition (there’s a review of that linked at the end, but I’ll focus more on “outreach” of another type below). The reason I’m highlighting this video is because if you are associated with this field, it’s really useful to consider this context when thinking about grant directions, and for all of us to consider how the funding organization and distributions of these public funds work.

The first part of the video that I’ve highlighted shows Vivien Bonazzi presenting the overview of the organization of the NHGRI Bioinformatics Research portfolio (about 20 minutes long). Afterwards there’s a very interesting question and discussion section too. Everyone will have different take-away messages from this, but I’ll just mention a couple of points that I found particularly interesting.

It was very helpful to hear about the balancing act between the funding for new projects and the maintenance of existing projects. And that’s got to be tough to do. It’s incredibly frustrating to see good tools not continue to get support. But I understand the need to fund new useful things as technology changes as well. There’s probably no way to accomplish this on limited (and sadly decreasing) funding. I certainly don’t have any answers for what the right balance is.

A couple of interesting conversation threads developed around this. One began ~ 31 minutes of this video. I was astonished to hear the council actually use the word “marketing” to discuss the outreach strategies for disseminating information on the tools developed with NHGRI funds. I laughed out loud at this because that’s a word that causes faces to wince when you use it around academics. I even joked about that in the discussion of the ads at Biostar that launched this past summer:

Pro-tip: Never say “ads” to academics. Call it “outreach”.  –Mary

Got a pretty good rating for that too. Heh. We are pretty careful about using the words “marketing” and “ads” as they generally cause much discomfort. Yet it seemed to me that the council understood the need to get the word out about the tools that they’ve invested in. There was a bit of reference to a new list being created to catalog the tools that have been funded. Yeah, another list, nice I guess. Lists are important. But is that really the missing link here?

I wish this discussion had gone further. I think that many people in this arena think that a  conference poster, or presentation = marketing. Not that there’s anything wrong with those strategies–but they are frequently aimed at the choir of folks already in that arena, and who had travel funds for that particular meeting, and that it’s only a small range really. Publications are important of course. But for software tools they are just not always that compelling or complete about how and why to use the tools. Another issue that we often find is that tool providers sometimes aren’t the best ones to “market” their stuff. They want to talk about the hot new cutting edge things they are developing, or detailed technical structural aspects, but new users don’t even have the foggiest idea of what the basics are. I understand the desire to talk about the new and innovative stuff. But there’s an basic introduction step missing much of the time–reaching new users and describing the basic functions is not “innovative” or hugely appealing to research teams who got a conference slot–I get that. But it’s not necessarily what completely new users need to understand exactly how to start working with certain software.

Another key piece came along at ~45 minutes. The discussion of the balance of new tools vs. supporting existing stuff continued. Vivien mentioned that maintenance types of grants can get “dinged” on innovation. Yeah–I’m sure that’s the case. And there was some musing about other ways to support existing tools: can they be thrown over the fence somehow to companies (maybe the cloud providers) who might be able to find a way to generate some revenue to support them? But a very important point was then raised: that everyone in this arena will spend money on a sequencing machine and kits, but expects bioinformatics tools to be free. Yeah. I was watching the recent discussion of issues around the TAIR funding where that played out.

Yes, here we are again. Alas. (Yes, I know this is NSF, but the issue is similar. And in the discussion of this video there was some chatter about reaching out to NSF sources for coordination of the funds.)

Anyway, it’s a useful video and discussion for folks in this field. And I think I got 3 grant ideas during the discussion. But I have no idea if they’d hit the right level of innovation, and they probably would be a tough fit in the existing structure. Maybe if I watch it again I can think of a way to do it.


Hat tip to Francis for spotting this and sharing:

Quick links:

NHGRI home page:

List of all the videos for this meeting: National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research 69th meeting

Russo G. (2013). Genomics: The big blueprint, Nature, 500 (7460) 28-28. DOI: