Business Week 4/25/2005 issue
Whose Molecules Are These?
The National Institutes of Health thought it had a great idea for advancing science -- but its concept is threatening the world's largest scientific society. The plan: put information about a vast number of molecules, which could be used to probe genes and biological functions, into a public database, dubbed PubChem. Scientists then could use the data to uncover new knowledge or new drugs. The information would come from other public databases, scientific papers, and publicly funded research.
But the project has run into fierce opposition from the 158,000-member American Chemical Society (ACS). The nonprofit group has its own database of 22 million molecules, the Chemical Abstracts Service, that typically costs thousands of dollars to access and accounts for more than half of the society's $421 million annual budget.
The two databases are complementary, argues NIH's Dr. Francis Collins: "We have no intention of duplicating information." But ACS complains that PubChem, which already contains data on 850,000 molecules, looks virtually identical to its offering. "Do taxpayers want their money to be used for something that's already done well in the private sector?" asks ACS Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs.
The warring factions have agreed to try to work out a solution. "I hope we can resolve this in a way that does not put us out of business," says Jacobs.
By John Carey