Virtual Centre for AIDS Research exemplary testbed for scientific collaboratory working

Amsterdam 05 March 2001During the first-day afternoon session of the Global Grid Forum Conference, Peter Knoop and Daniel Kiskis discussed the design principles, set-up, and operation of Comprehensive Collaborative Frameworks, better known as collaboratories, at the University of Michigan (UM). In this regard, UM is launching a Next Generation Collaboratory, named CHEF, to serve as a covering meta-framework in order to integrate UM Course Tools, a system to support teaching and learning, into the existing scientific, industrial, and educational collaboratories. In addition, a project of the US National Science Foundation will evaluate the collaboratory concept by defining and codifying the underlying technology. An example of a successful health collaboratory with user-centred design at UM is the Great Lakes Center for AIDS Research (CFAR).


For the first time, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) have created a "virtual" research centre which combines the talents of AIDS researchers at four universities in Midwest states. The centre is made possible due to the research conducted at the Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work (CREW) at the UM School of Information. The NIH awarded a $9 million grant over four years to establish CFAR, the Great Lakes Center for AIDS Research. The CFAR, one of seventeen across the nation, will bring together medical researchers from the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Minnesota. The School of Information (SI) has received $800.000 of the grant over that period to establish the collaboratory.

The NIH action is unprecedented in that it was the first time in the 10-year programme history that a CFAR will link multiple research locations to act as one, primarily over the Internet. Stephanie Teasley, an assistant research scientist at SI, will direct the CFAR computer collaboratory. Gary M. Olson, associate dean for research and doctoral programmes, and Thomas Finholt, assistant research scientist and director of CREW, have been appointed as co-principal investigators on the project.

The four academic research centres will work together as if they were not distributed geographically. A collaboratory uses various voice, video, and data tools which allow participants to conduct meetings, share information, and work "virtually side by side", despite the hundreds of miles separating them. It is, in essence, a "laboratory without walls", according to the speakers at the Global Grid Forum Conference. The vision is to link people to people, groups to information, and groups to facilities.

The NIH is interested in the collaboratory concept for several reasons. One being the cost savings of having multiple institutions bringing their unique specialities together toward a common goal. Michigan offers its expertise in gene therapy research, Wisconsin brings animal research, Northwestern has an extensive database of patients, and Minnesota studies how AIDS behaves in human tissue. Another reason the NIH is intrigued is the collaboratory's potential applicability to other NIH research programmes, such as cancer.

The UM School of Information has established a national reputation for collaboratory leadership. Already the National Science Foundation considers the Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory, recently evolved into the Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC), to be a model for others to emulate. In addition, CREW works with foundations, the government, and private enterprise to show how collaboratories can make work practices more productive.

The CFAR collaboratory, however, brings a new set of challenges for the SI faculty and students to solve. Among them are overcoming the competitive nature of AIDS researchers who, because of the personal and professional stakes involved, can be a bit wary of sharing data with other researchers. Another issue is keeping up with the speed of the research and the vast amount of data it produces. AIDS research seems to have a breakthrough of some kind or another almost weekly, and the tracking of these events will be critically important. SI will be instrumental in helping the collaboratory partners share information about research methods, data, and results, and make it easier for them to leverage their complementary expertise. The third challenge is ensuring confidentiality of records and data, especially as it may pertain to patients.

The new CFAR is an exciting project and will provide valuable experience for SI investigators. The NIH is going to watch this very carefully as a model for other distributed research centres. CFAR will be a testbed, according to Peter Knoop and Daniel Kiskis. In order to get the new collaboratory on its way, existing collaboration technology is used. Fortunately, since each university involved is already interconnected via the Internet, there's no need to provide a technology infrastructure. Off-the-shelf solutions have been applied in the first year, to get the collaboratory up and running quickly. Down the road, the team plans to create some custom software solutions.

SI's role is not limited to setting up a turnkey operation. The behavioural scientists are eager to study how AIDS researchers across four institutions will interact. Studying how scientists and others actually work together is a large part of why SI creates collaboratories. The bottom line is that through this research, the faculty will learn how people use information, and in turn, can suggest ways to use it better and faster. Students learn from this first-hand research, too, while assisting with the collaboratories or through in-class discussions and projects.

SI already had a running start on working with AIDS issues, which the NIH noted. The John D. Evans Foundation funded ICARE Net, the International Cancer and AIDS Research and Education Network, a demonstration project whose goal is to speed up clinical trials by showing the researchers more effective ways to work together. Thanks to that work through CREW, the work of SI's own researchers is respected in the AIDS research community. The NIH had enormous confidence in CREW in funding this project, and they are hoping CFAR will become a precedent for future health-oriented research centres.

Leslie Versweyveld

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