I blog fairly regularly about data-driven science, and the emerging ‘fourth paradigm’ of data-intensive research, in which – when the considerable technical challenges involved are better solved – significant computational power will be brought to bear to discover new knowledge from large, online, digital data sets. As part of a week-long Data-Intensive Research workshop (tweeted with the hashtag #datares) at the National E-Science Centre I gave a talk last Monday setting out our interests, needs and expectations, especially as they related to the voluminous genomics data becoming available. Through the wonders of the net, I was able both to follow other talks, and give my own, remotely.

The overlaps between Art and Science (and certainly of the creative processes that they involve) are often quite extensive, and we are keen to stimulate them where appropriate. Thus I enjoyed attending the EPSRC IMpact Exhibition at the Royal College of Art, where various scientific projects were given the conceptual treatment. The one that was probably of most potential interest to a BBSRC audience involved the rather clever (theoretical) use of bees to monitor the locations of particular plant genotypes by capturing their pollen for sequencing, and to report these locations via their waggle dances.

Bees and dance reconverged at our Innovator of the Year Award ceremony, where we saw a lovely excerpt of the very interesting piece (the Comedy of Change) that we co-sponsored from the Rambert Dance Company (aka Ballet Rambert) for Darwin Year. The winner of the Social Innovator of the Year prize was Dave Goulson from Stirling, who had developed an extensive network of some 7,000 partners in his bumble-bee research programme. The winner of the Most Promising Innovator of the Year was Michael McArthur of the John Innes Centre, while the winner of the Commercial Innovator of the Year prize, and overall Innovator of the Year, was Shankar Balasubramanian from Cambridge, who with his colleagues – in particular David Klenerman – invented and subsequently developed Solexa sequencing, an innovation now marketed by Illumina that has 50% of the considerable (world) genome sequencing market. The original project was dreamed up in the Panton Arms, sketched out on a single sheet of A4, and funded by BBSRC in Responsive Mode. Many congratulations to Shankar and his colleagues, and to all our 7 finalists!

As part of our strategic theme in Bioenergy and Industrial Biotechnology, I had a very useful meeting with David Clarke, Andrew Haslett and Akira Kirton of the Energy Technologies Institute. They are doing some wonderful work assessing the contribution that Bioenergy can make to the UK’s needs, and early indications are that it is indeed considerable. Clearly every percentage increase in yields increases that percentage in parallel. Another important theme to emerge is that the more we can increase root biomass, the more we can capture and sequester carbon in soils – and the scales we are talking about might provide considerable mitigation in the face of global warming. Deep-rooting plants also have considerable benefits on soil structure and aeration, and this is clearly something we shall wish to develop as soon and as effectively as possible.

Such thinking (and the importance of the topic) is hardly confined to the UK, and we had an excellent meeting with the UK Collaborative for Development Sciences, a forum where we can cohere thinking on more global perspectives. One presentation concerned the impact of climate change on Bangladesh, a country that because of its low-lying landscapes, is at the sharp end of potential sea level rises accompanying climate change. The need to develop salt-tolerant crops (both food and non-food) is very clear.

The Foundation for Science and Technology has many interesting meetings, and last week I went to one (PDF) on the future of high-speed trains in the UK. Not my normal habitat (except as an almost daily user), but a fascinating illustration of how we can get infrastructure projects moving. Maybe some of these new trains will use bioenergy!

I have blogged before about the variation of activity/productivity between different scientists, and in generally it follows a Zipf (power law) distribution with a slope equivalent to approx 1/n2 (i.e. for every 100 scientists with an output of x there is one with an output of 10x). Naturally we have the data to analyse our own distributions of grants, and below are two plots showing the number of investigators who have held particular numbers of grants (i) during the decade 1/1/2000 to 31/12/2009

Number of investigators who have held particular numbers of grants during the decade 1/1/2000 to 31/12/2009


and (ii) that are live on or since 1/1/2010

Number of investigators who have held particular numbers of grants that are live on or since 1/1/2010


Although these statistics could come with a large number of explanatory health warnings, on which I am not going to opine, it is interesting that the power law distribution does indeed hold very well over most of the range.

I was also pleased that this blog had been picked up by a young radiologist for her list of the top 50 blogs in biotechnology!

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