(with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

It is not news (Toffler’s Future Shock was published in 1970) that professional life is getting faster and faster, and that the increased availability of electronic communications has contributed to this. Why do I then choose to add to this flux of information with a blog? There are a number of reasons. First, it is a medium that allows me to air thoughts or facts that others may find interesting, and in a manner that also allows them to provide feedback without the time commitment, formality, downright sluggishness and occasional capriciousness of the peer review processes of scientific publishing. Secondly, it allows one to perform various kinds of pilot experiments (as at Nature) regarding web-based dissemination, since Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web are coming and it is important that we catch the wave. Thirdly, it is simply a form of self-expression, but in an essay style that differs from that of scientific papers, allowing freedom in the use of a judicious bon mot here and there. And, finally, it is true that comparatively few Professors write blogs, some are beginning to, more of us probably ought to, and it is even becoming respectable.

I should make clear that this blog is not a substitute for my column in BBSRC Business, nor is it intended to be a vehicle for disseminating official BBSRC policy – that is done by our publications and  news releases (best captured by our consolidated RSS feed), by our e-mail bulletins, our videos, and the like. However, I shall almost certainly use this space to discuss issues of general interest to our community, and to complement my discussions with colleagues at institutes and universities.

While I shall return to this topic again, one surprising comment in an article in a recent issue of the ‘Times Higher’ bears discussion. The comment reads “At the very least, as the funding crisis has become more acute, one would have hoped that the research councils might have done their homework and established the most effective way of distributing their limited funds. As far as I am aware, no such analysis has been undertaken.” All one can say, at the very least, is that we at BBSRC keep this question under constant review since it is our core business!

Another purpose of this blog will be to illustrate some of the direction of thinking that I capture via discussions both within the Swindon Office and with our community. Because I am a still a working scientist, I shall regularly draw attention to a paper or trend that has caught my personal interest, or for which I am indeed partly responsible.

One such has just appeared in Nature Biotechnology (see also citeulike). In this article, a group of 34 authors from 17 labs came together to provide a community consensus model of the metabolic network of yeast, and marked it up in a way that references all the entities either to persistent databases or by using standardised database-independent representations. This will make it considerably easier for future workers to know what molecules we are actually speaking about, especially for comparative purposes, and the network is available both via a database and – since we absolutely subscribe to the recognition that standards for interoperability are vital – in the SBML representation. This initial network is purposely intended to become a community resource to which all can contribute, capitalising on the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ within the spirit of Web 2.0.

Several other articles in the same issue are of interest, including the surprisingly overdue sequencing and transcriptomic analysis of Penicillium chrysogenum (the classical source of penicillins), showing up the importance of transporters – a particular interest of mine, and also a most interesting metabolic fluxomic study (with commentary) showing novel and unexpected targets within lipid metabolism for antiviral therapy. All of these articles illustrate how basic biological knowledge can be translated very effectively into highly useful applications that may be expected to have considerable economic impact. A further series of articles, such as those by Schloss and by Shendure and Ji, discuss ‘next-generation’ methods that are speeding up, by 3-4 orders of magnitude, the rate at which we can sequence DNA. Although such advances are not of themselves hypothesis-dependent, they are almost bound to revolutionise science, since, as Sydney Brenner has remarked (Nature, June 5, 1980), “Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries, and new ideas, probably in that order.”  The award of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of the Green Fluorescent Protein amply illustrates that.

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