washingtonpost.com

From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, February 9, 2009 12:00 AM

David Lipman of the National Institutes of Health is an Internet pioneer who has worked for more than a decade to make critical medical and scientific information available online for scientists, researchers and the general public.

Now Lipman is pushing the digital boundaries even further, employing a Google--style approach to make the voluminous government databases he helped create even more accessible and user-friendly.

Lipman said the goal of his "Discovery Initiative" is not simply to provide researchers with more information on medical topics, but to "offer them links to the highest quality pieces of information so that they can perform at the highest level possible."

"It's like ads on Google -- if you like this article, you might want to read these four articles," said Lipman, the director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Lipman envisioned, helped create and now oversees more than 40 publicly available online medical and scientific databases within NIH, although he gives much of the credit to his team.

The databases, which are interconnected for maximum research capabilities, are used daily by more than two million people. Each week the equivalent of all the text content in the Library of Congress is downloaded from these databases.

They include PubMed, an online service that allows the public to search abstracts from approximately 4,600 of the world's leading biomedical journals; PubMed Central, an archive of 1.7 million full-text journal articles from biomedical journals; GenBank, the world's largest genetic sequence data repository; and PubChem, a resource that connects chemical information with biological studies.

"His vision enabled NCBI to be one of the very best public resources available," said Richard J. Roberts, a molecular biologist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. "The current state of biological research would not be where it is if NCBI did not exist."

"He has truly done an extraordinary job at NCBI and continues to be imaginative and forward looking," said Roberts.

The readily-accessible NCBI databases are proving helpful both to researchers and to the general public in finding important medical information.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said she never expected that, a decade after becoming familiar with Lipman's work through her job, she would use PubMed Central to help her own family.

In 2008, Joseph's five-year-old son Alex was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. At night, Joseph would wake her crying son for his insulin shot, without which he could go into a coma -- or worse.

"I just thought, there has to be a better way, but nothing was out there," Joseph said. "Then it hit me -- I went to PubMed Central and found an article about a brand-new technology recently approved by the FDA that can monitor Alex's glucose through the night, which will really help our family."

The expansion of online resources was significantly aided by Congress, which in 2008 mandated that all taxpayer-funded medical research and clinical trials be placed online.

"If it weren't for Congress's mandate and NCBI's quickness in getting the information up, we wouldn't have found something that has profoundly helped my son," said Joseph.

Lipman's work was not easy. He had to overcome some resistance within the government and scientific communities. With his team, he developed the necessary tools to allow storage, rapid searches and barrier-free access to biomedical research reports.

While Lipman's focus is on using technology to make the latest medical information available, he is working with journals across the country to preserve older research data. "What this has done is made good research from 50 years ago available online," Lipman said.

As he looks back over his career, Lipman says he impressed by how much technology has influenced his profession and the positive role it plays in the medical community.

"When I started my work, I never imagined that the comprehensive data that we have now would be so readily available. It's phenomenal," Lipman said.

To link to all NCBI data bases go here.

(This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work to recognize the men and women who serve our nation.)

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive