Monthly Archives: September 2008

Institute retreats and a shock to the bioinformaticians heart

So today was our annual retreat day, which I freely admit I skipped out of in the afternoon and come home to get rid of some paper reviews I absolutely had to do.  However I spoke to enough people over coffee and lunch to make myself feel that I had done my bit.

I know that I still call myself a biologist, but I fear that my bioinformatics career has left me blind to what is going on at the bench sometimes.  Of course, the people who come to see us all require bioinformatics help, which in general means that they have done some kind of high throughput experiment, or have some data analysis needs that are at least a bit more than Excel can handle.  This retreat day just reminded how much of biology exists outside of what I see day to day.  These are people still wedded to confocal microscopes, agarose gels, southern blots and agar plates; and in some cases still persuing what looks to me for all the world like the reductionist biology I thought we were all trying to get away from.

There was a good handful of posters.  Well more than handful actually, there were quite a lot.  Of the maybe 30 posters, there was one with a microarray experiment, and maybe 4 or 5 with a protein structure.  I saw one with some MALDI-TOF output as well.   Normally I try to find people who I think could benefit from our services, but these people just don’t need bioinformatics for what they do.  Data management maybe, but not bioinformatics.  My world view of bioinformatics becoming the central supporting hub of biology in the 21st century took a little bit of a blow.

The other blow came from when a senior faculty member stood up.  The context of the talk is irrelevant but this line chilled me:

“Once published in Nature, data is flushed down the drain from a commercial point of view.  This is something we are going to have to think about in the future if we want to protect our research”

As we head inexorably into an “open access, open data, open science” world it is this kind of talk from the people who currently shape our academic destiny that worries me greatly.  At least the scientists (many of whom publish in Nature) who I spoke to about this had the decency to laugh it off and all claimed that they were more interested in science than intellectual property.

The event was held in Newcastle’s Discovery Museum which I had not been to before.  It’s a bit heavy on the ships (but hey this is Newcastle!) but at least is worth a visit if you’re over the age of 11 (unlike Life, just down the road).  Seeing Turbinia was rather good however.