$1.1 Million Volkswagen Foundation Grant Supports Medical Ontology Institute Founded by UB Philosopher

Major international research center will be located at University at Buffalo

Release Date: April 14, 2004 This content is archived.


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 2007.

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 Leipzig.

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 terminological systems.

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 application.

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 them.

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.

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