The fine art of getting funding

By Pete Young
Monday, 09 September, 2002

The Centre of Bioinformatics and Biological Computing is a Western Australian research institute that has made thinking laterally about sources of funding into an art form.

Even in eastern states where biotech is the flavour of the decade, bioinformatics research is not a first-class passenger on the gravy train. In WA's relatively barren government climate for biotech support, the ride is a lot bumpier. So how has the Centre of Bioinformatics and Biological Computing (CBBC), with its nine associated staff, managed to survive for three years as a regional research centre?

The X-factor appears to be its 34-year-old director, Matt Bellgard, and his ability to braid together an improbable collection of funding sources. His list of sponsors features a Japanese university, a lottery commission, and a grains research council. The centre's most important backer continues to be Murdoch University, at whose campus on Perth's southern fringe the centre is sited. But without the others, CBBC would not be able to function in its current form, Bellgard says.

The centre's Japanese connection is the Tokai University School of Medicine, which is funding a position at the centre for five years. It is filled by Assoc Prof Yurik Kulski, a functional genomics specialist, who spends half his year at the centre and the other half at Tokai University.

The Japanese link was forged several years ago when Bellgard was doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Japan's National Institute of Genetics and Kulski was completing a short-term stint at Tokai. Bellgard says creation of the collaborative arrangement was only possible because of the year and a half he spent in Japan on an Academy of Science fellowship.

"It enabled us to get to know the area and the people and as a result of that we were able to set up a technology transfer [between Tokai and Murdoch universities involving the CBBC]." The sponsorship is an example of the potential spin-offs such fellowships can generate and a reason for rethinking current moves to curtail the grant program, he says.

Another unlikely source from which Bellgard has managed to attract funding is the Western Australia State Lotteries Commission, which historically has ploughed funds into the state's medical sector.

As part of its support for the Lotteries State Microarray Facility, for which the CBBC is coordinating much of the bioinformatics component, the commission is paying half the salary of a CBBC staffer with Murdoch picking up the other half.

Yet another unusual sponsor is the Grains Research Development Corporation. It is providing for a researcher who is developing bioinformatics software for extensive genome sequencing analysis. The tracking software package, which gives scientists a tool for error-free reproduction of earlier search results, is attracting interest from a number of quarters, according to Bellgard. "It is all about quality assurance and audit trails that capture all your data and analysis and parameters as you do your work in an integrated manner," he says.

Originally being developed for legume species (in collaboration with the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre at Murdoch University), the system is being refocused on the wheat genome project as well as the human genome project.

Bellgard concedes the effort of maintaining his web of funding sources seriously impacts on the time he has for research but he sees little alternative.

"Western Australia in general does not attract significant national funding for major centres which creates a cascading problem because if you can't get national funding, it is hard to get State government funding," he says.

He pays tribute to Murdoch's core support for the CBBC but says "it is a small university and you've got to be creative about working out ways that leverage their funds and also benefit the university." That task involves setting aside time to keep in touch with key contacts. This month, for example, Bellgard is travelling to Japan to take part in the international H-Invitational Odaiba Marathon, a 10-day event whose goal is to annotate 30,000 human cDNAs (complementary DNA) sequences.

For Bellgard, the trip offers another chance to touch base with his Japanese sponsors and is just another example of the art of cultivating unusual funding sources.

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