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Michael Gottesman

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 the Internet.

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.

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