Dear Colleagues,

Please see the recent articles in Nature, attached below.

Teaching undergrads and postgrads to fill the vacuum in bioinformaticians, and bioinformaticians qualified toteach bioinformatics is a Swiss and German priority.

Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics has been opened, Germany's DFG bioinformatics programme has been launched. Korea has sufficient critical mass to form a bioinformatics society. Malaysia has formed his Biotechnology Academy which includes a bioinformatics component.

APBioNet might want to focus into training-the-trainer programmes, evolving bioinformatics curricula and create a joint working group for pooling our bioinformatics course materials and self-help. BIC would be interested to help initiate and participate in such a programme with the cooperation of others. Grant funding agencies and universities should be full partners in this effort. Otherwise, we will not have a good feed of manpower to do all the challenging research we need to do.

Best rgds

Tin Wee



Nature 400, 93 (1999) ?Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Learning by incentive

University reforms would help Germany to combat its worrying shortage of bioinformaticists. Germany is not isolated in its need to address a shortage of bioinformaticists to support increasing efforts in genomic and post-genomic research (see page 102). But neighbouring countries have reacted with somewhat greater agility to the scientific opportunities being opened up by the data already flooding in from the nearly completed human genome project. Switzerland, for example, has just opened its Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics (SIB) in Lausanne, an initiative supported by local universities and research institutes.

The SIB's activities include teaching undergraduate and postgraduate university courses, leading to a nationally recognized certificate. This is exactly the sort of national initiative that Germany needs to support the programme launched by its university granting agency, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. As the German research ministry is currently in the middle of developing a new genome research strategy, this is a good time for it to try some creative thinking along the lines of the Swiss model.

Good things can happen fast in Germany if the incentives are right; a few years ago, the research ministry's Bioregio programme, a sort of formal ranking of highly competitive regions, turned around the fortunes of German biotechnology within a year. But the attack must be on several fronts. Federal and Lder governments must pursue reforms to allow universities to offer competitive salaries and more flexible employment conditions. Given the worldwide shortage of those qualified to teach bioinformatics, it is important that candidates see a good reason to do so in Germany.


Nature 400, 102 - 103 (1999) ?Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

German agency to boost bioinformatics [MUNICH] Only weeks after the publication of a paper pointing to major deficits in Germany's genome research effort, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany's main funding agency for university research, has launched its own programme in bioinformatics. The DFG is keen to encourage German universities to shed rigid, discipline-orientated structures that have prevented them from embracing bioinformatics as an important new academic discipline, and done little to lessen the chronic shortage of German bioinformaticists.

The speed of the DFG's decision, and the flexible nature of the programme itself, have both surprised and pleased German scientists. But the initiative is also a deliberate test of the DFG's ability to practise what it preaches and display the flexibility required to run a loosely structured programme. The programme will consider for funding any proposal that could help to increase German competitiveness in bioinformatics. Two or three of the best proposals will share DM50 million(US$26 million) over five years; the money may be spent on either research infrastructure or salaries. Universities are being called upon to link up with local non-university research institutes to create regional projects for either establishing or building up permanent research and training centres in bioinformatics. Such projects, says the DFG, may "even go as far as cooperation with industry". Winning proposals will be those that can persuade the DFG that they will create internationally competitive bioinformatics centres which will ultimately survive on funds from other sources. "Winners will have to demonstrate convincingly that their proposal will result in structural changes" within universities, says the DFG's Andreas Engelke. Their aim must be "to provide a complete environment for bioinformatics, from undergraduate and postgraduate teaching to research programmes". The DFG is not used to handling such a loosely defined programme. But its launch is partly a response to criticism from an independent evaluation committee, which concluded that the DFG's rigidity was an obstacle to supporting new interdisciplinary subjects (see Nature 399, 395-396; 1999). "This bioinformatics initiative is a sort of test case for us, to see if we can be as flexible as we want the universities to be," says Engelke. Peer Bork, head of bioinformatics at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg and a group leader at the Max Delbrck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, says he is "very pleased" by the style of the programme. Bork was a member of the group of experts called together last December by DFG president Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker to discuss the future of genomics research in Germany. The group's deliberations formed the basis of the DFG's position paper on genomics, which called on the government to provide an extra DM1 billion for genome research in the next five years (see Nature 399, 622; 1999). The research ministry is now rethinking its genomics strategy and will publish a strategy paper in late summer. A major new programme in bioinformatics is expected to be announced.

But Bork warns that universities must take care when recruiting for any professorships created by the DFG programme. With few trained bioinformaticists available, and heavy competition from industry and other countries, "the new professorships could be filled with people with too little relevant experience: and this will be a problem for the training of the next generation".

These concerns are shared by Gerhardt Neuweiler, a former DFG president who is professor of zoology at the Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich, which is considering starting a course in bioinformatics. Neuweiler remembers when Germany "discovered ecology" 20 years ago. In the wave of the academic recruitment that followed, "many underqualified scientists were made professors, with the consequence that some areas of ecology are still very weak in Germany because of bad training".

There is general agreement that Germany, which has suffered a delayed start in all areas of genomic research, needs to generate armies of bioinformatics graduates as quickly as possible. Jens Reich, for example, one of Germany's few dedicated bioinformaticists and a professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, says the dearth of young bioinformaticists "is very apparent".

All academic establishments say recruitment has been extremely difficult. Bork, for example, still has seven unfilled positions in his bioinformatics group -- now 15-strong -- because he has been unable to find suitably qualified candidates.

A lack of qualified scientists has also delayed the start of the DFG's special Schwerpunkt programme in bioinformatics, the participants for which were selected at the end of last year. University researchers on the programme could not recruit postdocs to do the work, and a few weeks ago, in desperation, the DFG advertised the programme abroad, and is now starting to recruit.

In contrast, industry, which offers higher salaries, has escaped this problem. Reinhardt Schneider, a founder of Lion Biosciences, Germany's biggest bioinformatics company, says he has had no trouble recruiting scientists. But only a minority of his bioinformaticists are German. He therefore welcomes the DFG initiative, although he adds that "it would have been even nicer if it had happened a few years earlier".