Latin America bioinformatics project attracts criticism

Copyright: EBI

Speed read

  • Training and knowledge exchange are central themes of the initiative
  • But a regional association says it underestimates existing local capacity
  • Concerns also raised over goal of encouraging biological data sharing

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[RIO DE JANEIRO/WALLINGFORD] A recently launched programme aiming to involve more Latin American researchers in international bioinformatics efforts has come under fire for implying that Latin America lacks capacity in the field.
Critics are also concerned about the scheme's potential extraction of biological data from the region.
The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) launched the CABANA initiative last month (21 July) with the aim of empowering researchers to make more use of bioinformatics tools and to contribute more data to global bioinformatics databases.

“We welcome new programmes and projects supported by Europe, but we disagree [with] EMBL-EBI representatives saying that this project will put Latin America on the bioinformatics map.”

Javier De Las Rivas


The programme, funded by Research Councils UK, is the first of its kind by the organisation to have such an international reach and to offer tailored training, according to an EMBL-EBI announcement.
Initially designed to run for just over four years, the programme’s activities will include research secondments, ‘train-the-trainer’ workshops, short courses and e-learning resources. Training will address three ‘grand challenges’ identified as significant for Latin America: communicable diseases, sustainable food production and protecting biodiversity.
EMBL-EBI, which is part of an international research organisation funded by 25 national governments, justified the programme by saying that Latin American bioinformatics research was under-represented in public archives. This is partly due to a shortage of expertise in data analysis and interpretation, it says.
According to the CABANA announcement  — subtitled “Latin America on the bioinformatics map” — one of the most important aims is to strengthen the region’s existing research networks in this area.
But the 400-member-strong Iberoamerican Society of Bioinformatics (SoIBio), the main regional scientific and professional body in this field, was not aware of the initiative. The society aims to promote research and development in bioinformatics and computational biology in Latin America, Portugal and Spain.
“We welcome new programmes and projects supported by Europe in the scope of bioinformatics, but we disagree [with] EMBL-EBI representatives saying that this project will put Latin America on the bioinformatics map, as seems to be said in their announcement,” Javier De Las Rivas, the president of SoIBio and professor at the University of Salamanca in Spain, told SciDev.Net.
De Las Rivas added that just eight research centres will participate in the new programme. “It is too small with a potential reduced impact, since hundreds of centres work in bioinformatics in the region.”
A paper published by De Las Rivas and colleagues in Briefings in Bioinformatics earlier this year (28 June) shows that 2,119 papers were published on bioinformatics and computational biology between 1991 and 2016, from researchers in 19 countries in the region.
After SciDev.Net raised De Las Rivas’s concerns, Cath Brooksbank, who manages the programme on behalf of EMBL-EBI, said: "This [the project] is about inclusivity … we want to work with SoIBio."
She added that the original idea had come from a Latin American researcher.
“This entire project was started by a Colombian bioinformatician who called me up and asked me to be his partner on the project, so this has been very much driven by bioinformaticians in Latin America.”
Guilherme Oliveira a researcher at the Vale Institute of Technology, one of the participating institutions, says one of CABANA's measures of success will be to support a collaborative research network.

“It has already been well demonstrated that the existence of international collaborations North-South or South-South is a factor in increasing the quality and impact of the work produced by all members,” he told SciDev.Net.

“We hope that the approach of the themes, which is of central interest to the Latin America countries, will generate results that will benefit society, as well as producing high-quality scientific knowledge. The structuring and strengthening of bioinformatics groups should result in the nucleation of new groups contributing even more to the research network,” he says.

Another controversial area is CABANA’s additional objective of encouraging Latin American researchers to share the genetic data they collect.

“Training in bioinformatics is very important and it is very welcome. Furthermore, international partnerships are key – mainly in a moment of crisis,” Sidarta Ribeiro, secretary of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science and director of the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, told SciDev.Net.
“But biodiversity is not a commodity,” Ribeiro said. “Training should be about making real science, not extracting data.”
Yet Brooksbank said the idea of collecting data came from researchers in the region as data from Latin America was under represented in the databases they run, in human health and other areas.
“There is over representation of caucasians in the public data at the moment, and there is a wish to address that so that people can make the most of genomic data,” she said. “But that wish actually came from the Latin American researchers, it wasn’t us wanting to go over and grab data.”