What do you do if you need to find an NIH scientist who routinely uses an
instrument or technique that is not available in your lab? How can NIH respond
quickly to a request from Congress for the newest intramural discoveries in a
particular field or for the number of projects dealing with a rare disease? How
many times per year are scientists bothered with administrative requests for
information about their research and publications?
Our office is now joining forces with institute administrators, the Office of
Human Resource Management, the Office of Equal Opportunity, the Office of
Financial Management, and DCRT to develop a personnel database that uses modern
tools for the electronic collection, cataloging, and distribution of data to
answer these questions and others.
How will the NIH intramural database be assembled?
The goal of the NIH Intramural Scientists Database project is to have a
comprehensive, easily accessible source of information for scientists,
administrators, and the public while protecting the confidentiality of personnel
information. The database will be physically located in DCRT computers, and
information on all NIH scientists-including students, postdoctoral fellows,
senior technical staff, staff scientists, visiting scientists, and tenure-track
and tenured investigators-will be fed into the database from our personnel and
financial records. Once a year, or as often as they please, scientists will
update biographical information, annual reports, and bibliographies.
Currently, the best way to collect such data is through a questionnaire
posted on the World Wide Web. Previously assembled information-from a
bibliography or annual report, for example-can be electronically pasted into the
appropriate field on the questionnaire. As it turns out, a Web site which
satisfies most of our requirements already exists and is supported by the
Community of Science (COS), housed at Johns Hopkins University. This easy-to-use
site was created with a goal similar to ours, namely, to establish an
international database of scientific expertise. With help from COS, this site is
being adapted for our database. In the next few months, all NIH scientific staff
will be asked to sign on to the NIH-COS site, answer some questions, and the
annual task of providing data about your work will be almost complete. This year
you will also have to supply an abstract of your research for the annual
reports, but by next year, we hope to use the Web-based system to collect annual
reports as well. Once collected, these data will be downloaded to the NIH
central database and combined with administrative information needed for
management of the intramural program. Training or service sites will be provided
for scientists and support staff who are not already well-grounded in the use of
What advantages will the NIH intramural database have for NIH scientists?
The new database should save time and money. Currently, NIH scientific staff
are repeatedly asked to provide information on their research for, among other
things, annual reports, annual bibliographies, and various catalogs of research
activities. Scientists may also be queried about recent accomplishments, course
work, and special expertise. Responses to each request may demand different
formatting and hours of extra work, but once the new database is established, a
yearly updating of a scientist's entry will suffice. Furthermore, thanks to the
powerful search engines available for information on the World Wide Web, defined
fields-such as scientists' bibliographies-can be searched easily and completely.
This more useful, more up-to-date information will serve us better than our
current catalogs in recruitment and in the enhancement of communication and
collaboration with intramural and extramural colleagues.
How will the database be used as a management tool?
Institute and Scientific Directors and my office are charged with ensuring
that NIH programs are effectively managed-for example, that postdoctoral fellows
are given projects that result in publishable work, that pay is equitable, and
that safety course work has been completed. The NIH Database Project will make
it much easier to collect and analyze the management information we need.
How will we address security and confidentiality concerns?
One potential danger in establishing this large, central database is that
confidential personnel information might be more easily accessible to
individuals who do not have a legitimate need for it. Current security systems
for databases create a "firewall" between public information-such as the annual
abstracts now available via CRISP-and private personnel information, such as
pay. Only individuals with appropriate access codes can obtain data behind the
"firewalls." We will not release this database until we are satisfied that
confidential information is adequately protected.
Are there any other benefits of the NIH intramural database?
Several. First, it will be simple to create catalogs that profile various
subsets of scientists working at the NIH. These could be institute-based,
discipline-based, special-interest-group-based, or even technique-oriented. In
addition, we will be able to track students and postdoctoral fellows
electronically once they leave the NIH. Fellows enrolled in our database could
be asked automatically by e-mail to update their biographical information after
they leave NIH. These data will help us determine the optimal size for our
training program and provide trainees with accurate information about career
prospects. Currently, lack of automated tracking puts these data beyond our
reach. An added bonus of the database system is that requiring all members of
NIH's scientific staff to be Web-savvy enough to retrieve and enter database
information will help prepare scientists for the electronic commerce system,
on-line journals, and "virtual" scientific meetings that are in our future.
At the outset, some staff may be reluctant to take the time to learn to use
the Internet. I am confident, however, that the initial investment of time will
be handsomely rewarded with future savings and new research and management
tools. I welcome your ideas on creative ways to use the NIH Intramural
Scientists Database and any concerns you may have about it.