No Insults Intended, But...

Tue Feb 5 14:29:00 EST 1991

	"Science: The End of the Frontier?" a supplement to Science
magazine January 1991 should be read by everyone in the Scientific
community. The bottom line is that, with the present environment
of funding, morale is way down, and those who would potentially enter
the field are choosing alternative, non-academic career paths because
of the dismal future they see. How do their findings effect anyone
interested in cross-disciplinary research? It is because of this
supplement along with the growing number of my acquaintances (and myself)
looking for jobs, planning their goal directions and redirections,
and generally sweating through layoffs that I place this on the
bulletin board.
	Last year, at the Bio-Matrix meeting, the question arose:
what should the purpose be for a Bio-Matrix Society? What would the group
accomplish that could not or was not being accomplished by being a
sub-discipline of another group (potentially AAAI, Biophysical
Society etc.)?
	One viewpoint for the group would be for the exchange of
scientific insights and provide a place for like minded people (who
normally would not run into each other at the other societies meetings)
to gather, and hopefully help the field to progress.
	In todays tough economic times however, a more important function
might be to simply help the field survive. The bio-matrix, by definition, 
is comprised of scientists from multiple disciples with interests which
are cross-disciplinary encompassing a biological or chemical science
and computer science. In order for the network to work, collaborations
and free exchange of information is imperative. One of the more frightening
lines from the report (pg 11) was : "These scientists are also
increasingly viewing their fellows as competitors, rather than
colleagues, leading to an increasingly corrosive atmosphere." This growing
attitude could be fatal to the lofty ideals of creating an environment
where the present knowledge of biology was available through
interconnected databases.
	Furthermore, as the economic situation get tighter, researchers
that fit between disciplines will have more trouble getting jobs,
grants, etc. Are the researchers interested in a Bio-Matrix doomed
to become an endangered or extinct species? I especially want to ask question
about the academic researcher trying to run a small research group. While
most academic institutions can appreciate why a computer person
interested in biological applications is important, the computer science
department may not want to give a precious slot to a 'bio' type, and conversely
a biologist interested in computer tools may have trouble getting jobs in a
biology department since most of what they are doing appears to be
computer science. (Yes, I know three schools at least have joint mol.
bio. computer graduate degree programs, but that type of open-ness is
a minority opinion from what I've been hearing).
	To what funding agencies should grants go? This has been answered
to some extent at the bio-matrix meeting, but there is much research which
doesn't fit into the neat categories of most agencies. Furthermore,
since the research requires expertise in multiple disciplines, writing
an understandable grant for a reader from only one of the disciplines
makes it much more difficult, especially with grant page limitations.
Even more important, there is usually a tendency to fund one's own
field or what one would like to see accomplished, than something that
would most likely appear in a journal the reviewer would rarely if
ever read. There can even be some resentment as new areas take funds
away from older well established fields.
	Additionally, since the field is fairly new, expectations
tend to be unrealistic. There is an expectation of much better and
faster results from both the researchers and external observers who
would be interested in using some of the databases, tools etc. being
created at this time. Databases are useless without a long term commitment
in both money and time to create, maintain, update and create easy access
to them by a user community. Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma
placed upon database creation and maintenance which make it considered
something less than 'real research'. This was brought up at the meeting
during a discussion on how often the creator of a database managed to
get tenure and thus stick around long enough to see the fruit of their labor.
The discussion suggested too rarely.
	There are many researchers who are not involved in database creation,
but who are involved in creating programs to analyze, synthesize and generally
make new discoveries by utilizing one or more databases to gain new
insights into their favorite problem. It is just as important to include
their programs in some database so that the emerging databases can be better
utilized. (Yes, many of the databases have people working on such programs,
but individual efforts are still required). Again, there is an attitude
that creating analysis programs is not 'real science'. How are these
people going to get and maintain independent research positions in an
academic environment? Increasingly, companies are performing the task of
packaging the most popular programs and types of programs (e.g. Biosym, 
Intelligenetics, GCG). Will the student or researcher afford, or justify
affording access to programs that they might never use again? How about
the researcher who wants to maintain and extend their own programs
and ensure that they absolutely freely (and with no charge) distributed?
(Most of the commercial companies do an excellent job of making
programs affordable for academic institutions. If, however, there are 
for instance limited computational capability or external connections
(modem time can get expensive),individual programs on a PC or workstation
may be the only possible, desirable or necessary way for some labs to
use a program. There is still the problem of freelance researchers who 
is trying to avoid getting gobbled up by the larger projects.
I refer to freelance as an individual who creates a program they really want
to utilize and then make it available to others.) After all, a biologist who
thoroughly knows the experimental side of the problem and learns or
collaborates with a computer scientist has an excellent opportunity for creating
a really good tool. Conversely, a computer scientist with a really powerful
computer approach finding a biological problem that appears to be custom
made for their approach will also have an edge. How can they compete with
commercial companies or even the larger better funded databases who
can throw many warm bodies on a project in order to get a product,
when the individual academician spends so much time writing
grants just to survive. And what kind of freedom will their students have
to explore their own projects if the labs grant dictates otherwise?
	We can't solve the funding problem. But we should be working to
help the little guy as well as the big databases survive. How about a
database or clearing house for people who know of or are seeking to form
collaborations for a particular project? How about a place to put research
ideas that you may not have the time or expertise to do yourself but
would like to see done? (This helps all the computer science students
asking the number one question- "Do you know of a project in the biological
field that I could work on and get a computer science degree?"). And
last but not least, a job listing where those who know of a job, or are
looking for a job can try and find the right environment to survive
with there multi-disciplinary interests. Bio-matrix meetings will not
be very interesting if there are few places and people working in the
field because researchers have had to get 'practical' and stay within
the confines of their own fields. How about trying to make the Bio-matrix
something more than just a summer meeting? Our very survival may depend
upon it.

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