Big money for big data—that’s the takeaway from yesterday’s NSF announcement. The NSF has awarded $50 million to a multi-institution collaborative that is building a national cyberinfrastructure for the biological sciences. In awarding these funds, the NSF is renewing its commitment to the iPlant Collaborative, a five-year, $50-million project that was initiated in 2008.

The collaborative is headquartered at the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute. Partner sites are located at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas, Austin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, and University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).

The renewal grant matches the original grant, which was the largest ever awarded by the NSF in the biological sciences. The $100 million total reflects the NFS’s conviction that a large collaborative is better able to advance the understating of biology than any individual research group.

Over the past five years, iPlant’s team of 40-plus employees at the University of Arizona—working with additional personnel at TACC, CSHL, and UNCW—has solicited the national and international plant research community for the computational and data-based challenges they face in research. Based on this community input, the team created a set of technologies for connecting scientists both to needed computational resources and to collaborators with expertise to accelerate the pace of their research.

The iPlant tools and services are being adopted by a broad range of life science researchers in need of high-performance computing for big data analysis and management. These tools and services also are being used in innovative approaches to education, outreach, and the study of social networks.

Advances in biological research technology have enabled scientists to amass unprecedented amounts of data. In the past, these scientists were able to meet computational challenges in their labs using workstations and university computer clusters. Now, they are finding that these resources are unable keep up at the same rate as data is acquired. According to Nirav Merchant, iPlant’s cyberinfrastructure faculty advisor at the University of Arizona, “We’ve always had big data, but now we have the usable tools and technology to act on it.”

The iPlant Collaborative is pursuing several strategic efforts:

  • Foster the formation and development of Grand Challenge Projects and Project Teams that cover a range of plant biology and computer science disciplines.
  • Adopt and create the best and most appropriate cyberinfrastructure to build a plant science-focused system suited for plant science questions, data, and computational tools.
  • Promote computational thinking and approaches within Grand Challenge Teams and the entire plant science research and education community by stimulating collaborations, developing appropriate tools, and supporting training from K-12 through higher academic institutions.
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