Originally published on Inside Philanthropy, August 8, 2014.
The problem of neuroscience has rapidly been shifting from not enough information, to more than we know what to do with, or at least can handle collectively. Some major funders hope to get brain researchers speaking the same language, in terms of data, and then get them talking.
As massive neuroscience projects like the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project pop up internationally, researchers face the challenge of orchestrating growing stores of data built up by our quickly advancing number-crunching technology. But, as in many other fields right now, the limit to what we can do is about our ability to collaborate and approach a bird’s eye view of the diverse information we’re gleaning.
A handful of research institutions—including funders Kavli, GE, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, HHMI, and the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility—launched a project to get brain scientists to standardize data formats, paving the way for them to collaborate by making their findings interchangeable and comparable.
Other partners include Caltech, NYU School of Medicine and UC Berkeley. The one-year pilot project of “Neurodata Without Borders” has about $1 million in backing, and will begin by looking at cell-based neurophysiology.
“To us, it is a miracle that these various groups have aligned together for a common and very important goal to standardize and share data for the future generation of neuroscience community,” emailed Miyoung Chun, executive VP of science programs at Kavli.
While the sky is more or less the limit with data storage these days, the format in which recorded information from brain research is kept is all over the place, even within labs sometimes. If the community can develop a standardized format for storing such data, researchers would be able to share and explore a repository of findings and, we would hope, collaborate in new ways. The project is inviting as many researchers as possible to participate in the process, and even holding a hackathon at HHMI’s Janelia Farm research campus in November.
Getting researchers to share data “will take a village,” Chun said.
Neurodata Without Borders is in line with the current trend toward open science, getting research out of the desk drawer or computer folder, and out in the open to be scrutinized and coordinated with the greater community. It’s addressing the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, trying to link up the thousands of minds trying to discover similar truths. The other field in which this approach is particularly hot isgenomic research. Aside from the institutional challenges to making such openness happen, there are logistical issues, which is what this initiative hopes to begin tackling.
We talk a lot about how philanthropy can play a valuable role as a facilitator for linking up different stakeholders that might not otherwise have means or motivation to connect, and this is sort of your classic example. One odd thing about the project, however, is its one-year timeline. While it’s only the first project of the initative, focusing on one subset of data, it’s hard to imagine much being completed in the course of 12 months. The organizers acknowledge the challenge, citing the size of the endeavor, and that it’s essentially just the beginning. And Chun said the initiative will have a better sense of future commitments after the November event.
Image: An astrocyte cell grown in tissue culture stained with antibodies to GFAP and vimentin. Image was captured on a confocal microscope in the EnCor Biotechnology laboratory. Wikimedia Commons user GerryShaw.