BUFFALO, N.Y. -- SUNY Distinguished Professor Barry Smith,
Ph.D., Julian Park Professor of Philosophy at the University at
Buffalo, has received a $1,124,000 grant from the Volkswagen
Foundation to continue support of the Buffalo-Leipzig Institute for
Formal Ontology and Medical Information Science (INFOMIS) through
INFOMIS is a collaborative effort involving UB and the
University of Leipzig, where the institute is located. Currently
working in Germany on academic leave, Smith will return to UB in
September where he will start an institute parallel to the one in
The goal of INFOMIS is to establish a formal ontology, that is,
a common system of categories that can be re-used in different
contexts, for biomedical information systems.
Work on this system necessitates the resolution of foundational
questions underlying a wide range of issues in biomedical
informatics. Such an ontology will support effective communication
between bioinformaticians, medical informaticians, biologists and
health-care providers who work in different linguistic and
Smith recently addressed the National Cancer Institute in
Bethesda, Md., on the results of his work.
The Volkswagen grant brings to $3,659,000 the amount of grant
money awarded to Smith since 2001 for his work in this field -- an
enormous sum for philosophical research.
Earlier awards were the 2001 Wolfgang Paul Award from Germany's
Humboldt Foundation, at $2 million ($2.6 million in current
dollars), the most valuable award in the academic history of
Germany and believed to be the largest single prize ever awarded to
a philosopher; and a $535,000 grant in 2003 from the European
Union's 6th Framework Programme on Research and Technological
Development, commonly known as FP6.
"Integrating philosophical methods such as ontology with
real-world applications is one of the exciting things about Dr.
Smith's research," according to Jaylan S. Turkkan, Ph.D., vice
president for research at UB.
She points out that he and his colleagues are addressing one of
the major problems confronting medical-information science, which
is that it must employ a large number of modeling methods and
conceptual categories that lack a unifying foundation. As a result,
databases and terminological standards have a very low degree of
compatibility and cannot be re-used even in similar areas of
In response to this, Smith and his research team in Leipzig and
Buffalo are developing a powerful general medical ontology -- a
semantically sound taxonomical and lexical framework that will
overcome problems like reusability and coherence.
Ontology is the theory of objects and their ties. The unfolding
of ontology provides criteria for distinguishing various types of
objects (concrete and abstract, existent and non-existent, real and
ideal, independent and dependent) and the relations between
Contemporary ontology is developed from both philosophers and --
more commonly -- scientists working in the fields of artificial
intelligence, database theory and natural-language processing.
Biomedical ontologists attempt to devise systems of communication
in which there is a consistent meaning for terms used in different
language systems and conceptual frameworks.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the
State University of New York.