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A new informatics institute: who, what, why?

We’ve just launched our search for a Director to run our new UK Institute for Health and Biomedical Informatics Research. Rhoswyn Walker, our Head of Informatics Research, tells us about the new institute.
Graphic representing different types of data

Let’s start at the beginning… What is informatics?

There are many definitions but broadly, informatics is the use of maths, statistics and computer science to get answers from large, complex datasets. Datasets in health and biomedical research come from lots of different sources so the institute will work with biological, clinical, social and environmental data. Researchers will also use emerging forms of data like that from wearable technology.

What will the new informatics institute do?

It will support world-leading research to develop cutting-edge analytical tools and methodologies to address the most pressing health research challenges. These tools and methods will allow us to use complex and diverse data at an unprecedented depth and scale.  It will be a national informatics research programme, so it can capitalise on the UK’s unique research strengths and data assets.

The institute will begin by developing people with the right skills to find new ways of using data to improve human health.  We’ll need people who understand data science but also have a health research perspective. We’ll offer them a clear career structure so that we can attract the best minds to the field.

The institute will bridge the gap between disciplines which are currently quite distinct. There’s huge potential to improve health by looking at data from across the spectrum.  For example, bringing together bioinformaticians, who manage biological and genetic data, with health informaticians, who work with diverse clinical data.

What organisations are funding and supporting the institute?

We’re working with a consortium of over 10 organisations including government health departments, other research councils and charities. Many stakeholders across academia and industry support the institute which is great.

The MRC will invest £37.5m into the institute over an initial five year period. We are currently discussing with other partners about contributing funding. We see this as a long-term investment, just like existing MRC institutes.

Who else will be involved?

Excellent informatics research is already taking place at research institutions and centres across the UK.  The institute will tackle challenges that individual research programmes can’t address. So it will complement and extend the research activities at individual institutions. We’ll be asking research organisations who want to take part in the institute to send in statements of interest – keep an eye on the institute’s webpage for more information.

We believe this research will also bring huge benefits to society by advancing the understanding of disease and improving health and care for patients and the public. So another important role for the institute will be involving and engaging the public with its research.

Where will you base the institute?

The institute will be UK-wide and geographically distributed across a number of centres of excellence. The Farr Institute and recipients of the MRC Medical Bioinformatics Awards have already been making great advances.  We’ll harness the £100 million of infrastructure we’ve already established through these and other complementary investments so we can capitalise on the UK’s existing strengths in informatics.

How does the institute’s ambition differ from existing informatics initiatives?

Previous initiatives have focused on a particular type of informatics, within focused research collaborations.  However, the new institute will bring together a greater breadth of interdisciplinary skills, expertise and partnerships in a single organisation. It will employ staff across the UK and be led by one Director to enable UK-wide connections and collaboration.

When will it launch and what will it be called?

We are currently recruiting a Director and aim to launch the institute by the end of 2017. Its working title is the UK Institute for Health and Biomedical Informatics Research… we’re currently consulting stakeholders about a snappier name!

Will collaboration be limited to the UK?

We’ve designed it to be as open and collaborative as possible both within the UK and internationally.  So the institute will partner with academia, health and social care organisations and industry, helping to ensure that its research directly addresses the most important health challenges.

For more information visit the institute’s webpage.

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