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Report Blasts Problem-Plagued Cancer Research Grid

$350 million caBIG technology program is too complex and its business model is unsustainable, says National Cancer Institute working group.

CaBIG officials, in an effort to be "nimble" in delivering new capabilities, awarded subcontracts without peer review, contrary to standard practice within the National Institutes of Health. (The National Cancer Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.) "There has been a complete lack of independent program review and oversight," the working group reports.

Biddick, of Fusion PPT, says that approach allowed new tasks to get started quickly but did so without important checks and balances. "Conflicts of interest that existed between the project oversight and implementation violate Project Management 101," he says.

The report also maintains that caBIG's contractors don't have enough expertise in cancer research, resulting in a perception among researchers that the contractors steered funding toward pet projects, such as cloud computing, rather than their needs. The working group expressed concern that this trend continues with ongoing projects, such as the development of a roadmap for caGrid 2.0. "The roadmap, goals, and timeline are opaque to the community," according to the report.

Andrea Califano, chairman of the working group and a professor of systems biology at Columbia University, puts part of the blame for caBIG's problems on a "layer of management" that exists between the caBIG user community and leadership team, resulting in miscommunications and a disconnect between the program's objectives and actions. He says adoption was also hampered by an installed base of software tools from Oracle, Velos, and other vendors that are used by 70% or more of cancer centers. Califano estimates it can cost cancer centers up to $30 million in personnel and other expenses to integrate caBIG software with their existing computing environments.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget is attempting to rein in problem-plagued federal IT projects through its TechStat review program. The goal is to "re-scope" complex projects before they become funding sinkholes. The feds started by looking at financial system upgrades and other high-risk projects, and they're now applying the oversight more broadly. CaBIG hasn't been subject to TechStat review but would be a strong candidate.

NCI says it's evaluating what to do next with caBIG. "The report has significant recommendations, all of which we are taking seriously," an NCI spokesman told InformationWeek in an email, in response to our inquiry. "At this juncture, however, decisions have not yet been finalized."

CaBIG's three main contactors scrambled to respond to the working group's report and our requests for comment. A Booz Allen spokeswoman referred questions to NCI but said Booz Allen "is very proud of the work we do for the National Cancer Institute and our contributions to the important caBIG project." Sapient declined to comment, while SAIC-Frederick was unable to answer questions in time for this article.

The report concludes that caBIG's original goals remain relevant and recommends refocusing on them. In addition to its progress on data exchange and applications interoperability, the working group found caBIG to be providing valuable support for software developed by the academic research community. But the working group also determined that caBIG suffers from poor execution and an unsustainable business model, and it recommends that further development of caBIG-branded software be discontinued.

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