National Institutes of Health: Emerging Technologies at the NIH Library
by James King
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the world’s largest biomedical research agency. A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), it comprises 27 institutes and centers. The NIH is a major funder of biomedical research, with 80% of its $37 billion annual budget devoted to extramural research across the country and 10% devoted to intramural research performed by NIH staffers. Nearly 6,000 researchers work in the NIH’s research laboratories, primarily on the NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, Md. These researchers work to understand and prevent disease and improve health for millions of people.1
|Innovation is a core value of the NIH Library, manifesting itself in many of our services ...
In addition to its responsibility to provide library services to a large number of very active researchers, the NIH Library has been able to establish an innovative library culture to test new technologies and new ideas to support the production of research. The library’s vision is “to be the premier provider of information solutions that enable discovery and improve health,” supporting both the intramural research community and the NIH scientific administrators who manage the research grants awarded each year.
The NIH Library is distinct from the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is on the same campus in Bethesda. NLM serves the entire nation’s health information needs and delivers vital services, including PubMed and PubMed Central. The NIH Library focuses on the information needs of the NIH community and provides primary library services for most components of HHS. The NIH Library actively collaborates with libraries at our two major sister agencies in HHS: the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).2
Innovation is a core value of the NIH Library, manifesting itself in many of our services, especially those focused on data mining/analysis and technology. Some of our more innovative services that also take advantage of emerging technologies include the following:
- Bibliometrics (publication metrics)
- Data analysis and visualization
- Custom information solutions
- A technology hub that includes 3D printing, an audio/video studio, and virtual/augmented reality
Bibliometrics is a scientific discipline focused on the quantitative analysis of academic publications.3 Using these publications as a proxy for research, bibliometrics attempts to understand the production, producers, and evolution of academic research. One of the key aspects of bibliometrics is assessing the impact, or usefulness, of certain publications—or publications by certain authors, institutions, or countries—on subsequent research.4
The NIH, as both a funder and a producer of scientific research, is increasingly using bibliometrics to evaluate the scientific research of authors, laboratories, institutions, and grant programs to make decisions about future funding. The NIH Library launched the Bibliometric Services program in 2014 to provide expert advice, training, and custom services to its customers in this area. In addition to creating bibliometric profiles of the intramural research at each of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, the team also responds to requests for custom, detailed analyses to evaluate research, trace the evolution of research on a topic, and research evolution and direction.
The NIH Library’s Bioinformatics Support Program was developed to provide researchers with powerful tools to analyze and understand the biological and genetic significance of a variety of data. The program is highly successful and has served more than 6,000 scientists since its inception in 2009. It consists of graduate-level classroom training, access to analysis tools and datasets, and one-on-one
consultations and tutorials. This data-centered program provides software for the analysis of high-throughput data (such as next-generation sequencing data), as well as software and a knowledgebase to help in the interpretation of the results of these analyses, especially pathways and genetic variants. Additionally, the library offers three high-performance bioinformatics workstations optimized for analysis of high-throughput data.
Data Analysis and Visualization
Carly Fiorina, former CEO and chair of HP, said, “The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.” 5
The NIH’s Data Services involves a blend of hacking skills, math, statistical knowledge, and experience to create a compelling story through a mix of data, visuals, and narrative. The NIH Library currently supports this through a series of classes focused on programming to access bibliographic data through APIs, consulting to help craft the data story and get the data in the right format, and summarizing/visualizing the data to make the story compelling and easy to understand.
Custom Information Solutions (CIS)
The NIH Library’s Custom Information Solutions (CIS) was formed in 2009 to bring together information science, information architecture, and technology to help NIH staffers solve research challenges. Information architecture blends librarianship, project management, taxonomy, consulting, database architecture, usability, and website design to create a unique system that provides improved service to customers. These efforts have leveraged the open source CMS Drupal (drupal.org) on a FEDRAMP-compliant cloud hosting solution to develop innovative and comprehensive information solutions. These include the following:
- Interagency Collaborative to Advance Research in Epilepsy (ICARE)— A portfolio of epilepsy research projects funded by public and nonprofit organizations in the U.S.; icarerp.nih.gov
- International Alzheimer’s Disease Research Portfolio (IADRP)— A portfolio of Alzheimer’s disease grant funding data from more than 35 public and private organizations that allows users to search, export, and analyze this data; iadrp.nia.nih.gov
- Alzheimer’s Disease Preclinical Efficacy Database (AlzPED)— A database of published and unpublished preclinical studies aimed at promoting the efficiency, reproducibility, and accuracy of preclinical therapy development for Alzheimer’s disease; alzped.nia.nih.gov
- Pandemic Influenza Digital Archive (PIDA); in development— A database of historical scholarly publications spanning 1,200 years in 17 languages, focused on historical pandemic influenza research, especially the 1918 pandemic;6 (forthcoming) pida.nihlibrary.nih.gov
The NIH Library’s Technology Hub, a makerspace located within the NIH Library, exposes NIH staffers to emerging technologies and allows them to explore ways to incorporate them into their research. These technologies have been featured in campuswide events and broadened through partnerships with various research groups across the NIH. Technologies currently in the space include 3D printing, a digital production studio, and virtual reality.
Library staff members are available to assist with preparing 3D models for print on the library’s entry-level professional 3D printer (uPrint), which is capable of precise printing using ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). The uPrint features the ability to print intricate and suspended patterns using dissolvable supports that are melted away after printing. The printer also has a heated printing chamber that reduces cracking and curling, which can sometimes be a problem when printing with ABS. This service is available at no charge to NIH staffers, but it’s limited to research and prototyping.
Digital Production Studio
The Digital Production Studio is a self-service facility supporting the creation of audio and video projects. The space is equipped with digital equipment and editing software, with staff assistance to help customers become familiar with the tools and processes. Although this is a free service, the library collaborates with and encourages the use of NIH’s production studio for professional-level needs. The NIH Library’s facility has already been used to support filming of an emergency-medicine food-allergy protocol video, audio commentary by an NIH researcher for the British Journal of Dermatology, and a partnership with the Office of NIH History and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for a series of 20 oral histories from senior intramural staff.
HTC’s VIVE is available within the library to help staff explore how virtual reality (VR) technology might be applied to research, collaboration, and education needs. VIVE has a room-scale VR that allows the user to walk around and interact with a virtual space through a VR headset and two motion-tracked handheld controllers. The library continues to collaborate with the NIH Virtual and Augmented Reality Interest Group (VARIG), hosting meetings and campuswide VR events. The library’s VR service has been prominently featured in campuswide events, including Take Your Child to Work Day and the annual Intramural Research Festival.7
The NIH Library continues to seek new ways to serve and support our customers at the NIH, often through the use and availability of innovative and emerging technologies. The services listed here reflect the current needs and interests of our customers, although in many cases, we could not confirm that until we introduced the service. For example, 3D printing was introduced as a 6-month pilot with a simple Makerbot printer before confirming that there was continued need and interest. Conversely, the library purchased 3D pens and a large touchscreen, neither of which was really used much. The library is currently researching electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) to see if there is a need for support across the campus. Having the capacity to experiment with new technologies, to apply ideas that are working in other environments, and to support the staff’s need for new skills all contribute toward an innovative library culture.
1. What We Do. National Institutes of Health (NIH). 2018 (cited Oct. 17, 2018). Available from nih.gov/about-nih/what-we-do.
2. King, James; Belter, Christopher W.; Burns, Bridget; Davis, MaShana. “Creating Value at the National Institutes of Health.” Information Services & Use, vol. 36, no. 1–2, pp. 73–80, 2016. DOI: 10.3233/ISU-160802.
3. Belter, C.W. “Bibliometric Indicators: Opportunities and Limits.” Journal of the Medical Library Association, vol. 103, no. 4, pp. 219–221, 2015. DOI: 10.3163/1536-5050.103.4.014.
4. Cooper, I.D. “Bibliometrics Basics.” Journal of the Medical Library Association, vol. 103, no. 4, pp. 217–218, 2015. DOI: 10.3163/1536-5050.103.4.013.
5. Fiorina, Carly, former CEO of HP. Speech given at Oracle OpenWorld (cited Oct. 17, 2018). Available from hp.com/hpinfo/execteam/speeches/fiorina/04openworld.html.
6. King, James. “Building the Pandemic Influenza Digital Archive (PIDA) at the National Institutes of Health Library,” Sci-Tech News, vol. 64, no. 3, article 6, 2010. Available from jdc.jefferson.edu/scitechnews/vol64/iss3/6.
7. Earl, Leslie. “NIH Research Festival: Into the Future and Out of the Past,” 2016. Available from irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v24i6/nih-research-festival-into-the-future-and-out-of-the-past.