This blog updates you on what BBSRC has been doing over the past weeks, and I will now be back to my weekly blogging.

BBSRC meetings included those of Council, Appointments Board and my first attendance at our Integrative and Systems Biology Strategy Panel. External meetings included two with JISC, exploring in particular the likely needs for bandwidth that our community will discover as we move in particular towards the era of very high throughput nucleic acid sequencing. I also gave a talk, as a double act with Tony Hey of Microsoft Research, on ‘Data-intensive science: why and how’ at a meeting hosted by the University of Exeter.

Other engagements included meetings with the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries, with Prof Tim Wheeler who is the new deputy Chief Scientist at the Department for International Development, and with Joe Cerell who runs the new European Office of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Evening lectures included one on obesity under the aegis of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, on skills needs hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology, and a meeting of the British Society of Plant Breeders.

University visits included trips to the Universities of Reading and Warwick, the former a long-term centre for food and agriculture research and the latter heavily involved (inter alia) in horticultural research. I also had a thoroughly useful trip to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Paris to exchange views about funding strategies. Happily the Eurostar proved immune to volcanic ash clouds that had disrupted air travel.   

The Autumn 2010 grants round deadline has now been announced as June 23rd. We had been slow in confirming that date because we had to wait until the date of the transfer of the BBSRC grants function to the RCUK shared services centre was agreed, so that we could schedule business to minimise disruption. The delay was not – as some members of the community with over-active imaginations have apparently been surmising – because we were thinking of cancelling it (we weren’t), but apologies to those who may have been left uncertain. The message, as always, is “if in doubt ask the Office” – we are there to help!

Post-purdah we have had a lot of press releases, but let me remind readers in particular that we have also recently announced our call for Committee and Panel  members. Please think of applying to serve, especially if you have skills in quantitative methods.

As readers will know, I have a considerable interest in data visualisation (and – be  honest – if you wish to understand the structure of a protein you wand to see it; a .pdb file may contain the same information as the picture, but is of little use to the human perceptual apparatus). We shall be announcing a workshop later in the year, but meanwhile I was pleased to see the appearance in prepublication form of one of my own papers describing a freely available tool for visualising biochemical and other networks encoded in SBML.

One paper I enjoyed reading was that by Bond-Lamberty and Thomson (with an excellent News and Views commentary by Smith and Fang) pointing out the huge carbon fluxes between the atmosphere and soils (soils hold twice as much carbon as does the atmosphere), and enhancing the realisation that there is great variation in the distribution (and sequestration) of carbon in different soils. We shall be developing thinking as to how best to enhance such carbon sequestration sustainably, since an increase of 15% means a decrease in atmospheric CO2 of 30% – a prize very well worth having.

Numbers are fascinating things, but can be tricky. The bionumbers database is making a start at providing some that are useful for biologists, while Science magazine had an absorbing online article about the rarity of correct statistical analyses, that bears reading by all. I have blogged before about the problems of combinatorial optimisation, where modern methods can nevertheless find effective solutions in large search spaces. To this end, I came upon a fascinating example of this, in the form of the Eternity puzzle. This was a complex monochrome jigsaw, with an estimated 1095 correct solutions and an estimated 10500 incorrect ones. With only 1 in 10405 solutions being potentially correct, and the lifetime of the Universe in seconds being ca 1017, its inventor was confident enough to offer £1M for its solution. The prize was duly collected by two young British mathematicians, whose particular insight (among others) was that not all of the 209 pieces were equally useful (i.e. easy to mesh with others), and that one trick should therefore be to use up all the ‘difficult’ ones first. Maybe these kinds of <ahem> out-of-the-box approaches will be useful for our IdeasLab.

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