The bioinformatician is dead – long live bioinformatics

Last week I came across a comment article in Nature by Jeffery Chang titled “Core services: Reward bioinformaticians”. I found it highly interesting, but I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions draw by the author.

Chang argues that “biologists are increasingly finding that questions that are initially based on a single protein or gene quickly expand to require large-scale experiments” and thus the need for bioinformaticians increase. His answer to this is that the scientific community should invest in alternate career paths for bioinformaticians. And while I believe that the analysis of the situation is spot on – I think that there is a different solution to the problem. I think that rather than to to create a separate structure where bioinformaticians act as support to biologists, we should include more applied bioinformatics in basic training for biologists.

I do think that anyone would argue that having a career in physics means having a firm understanding of math. The reason for this is of course that math is an essential tool for a physicist. In the same way I believe that a firm understanding of applied bioinformatics is crucial to the work of a biologist in a high-throughput assay world.

Chang writes:

“To give greater support to researchers, our centre set out to develop a series of standardized services. We documented the projects that we took on over 18 months. Forty-six of them required 151 data-analysis tasks. No project was identical, and we were surprised at how common one-off requests were (see ‘Routinely unique’). There were a few routine procedures that many people wanted, such as finding genes expressed in a disease. But 79% of techniques applied to fewer than 20% of the projects. In other words, most researchers came to the bioinformatics core seeking customized analysis, not a standardized package.”

I think this “routinely unique” situation only strengthens the arguments that the researches asking the questions also need to be able to answer those questions themselves. The view that I’ve sometimes come across, that bioinformatics is “just a support thing” which should be provided be somebody else bothers me. It purports the false image that one can work in an informatics rich area without investing in the know-how.

To some extent bioinformatics is already included in biology programs, but not to the extent that I think that it needs to be. The tools of the trade in bioinformatics need to be in there. Skills such as scripting, working with high-performance computing systems, etc all need to be taught. In the long run making the bioinformaticians of today redundant.

Of course there will always be a need for specialisation (and I don’t want to loose my job), but to argue that bioinformatics is a thing separate from biology I think misses the point. Rather than to make ourselves indispensable we should strive to provide biologists with the tools and the knowledge they need to answer the biological questions of tomorrow. That way we will be able to say – the bioinformatician is dead, long live bioinformatics!