Anyone with an interest in UK Science cannot fail to have been delighted at the announcement in last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review speech that the Science Budget would not be cut and would be ‘frozen’ at ‘flat cash’ for the next 4 years. We do not yet know what this means for BBSRC and the many calls on our resources, and there may be some challenges around allocations of spend on capital projects, but compared with what most interested parties were anticipating it is a stunning result. The clear recognition that our scientific excellence does indeed have economic and other impacts will have played a significant role, and we can all be grateful to those who helped prosecute both the arguments and the evidence.
Much of the rest of last week seemed to involve meetings about Food in various ways. One meeting was with Bob Watson, Chief Scientist at Defra who is this week receiving the very prestigious and well-merited Blue Planet prize. Another involved our Diet and Health Research Industry Club (DRINC), that includes co-funding from industry, EPSRC and MRC and that has now provided three tranches of funding to nearly 30 projects. The level of interest in this topic was and is astonishingly high, and it was gratifying to see the emergence of a substantial community (many of whom did not previously know each other) as a result of this initiative. It would be egregious to select or comment on any specific projects, but this programme covers a very wide range of important topics, from the psychology of portion sizing and food choice to the roles of polyphenols and (poly)unsaturated fats in the dietary contributions to the maintenance of health. My speech at the meeting paid tribute to Alistair Penman, the Chair and driving force of the DRINC programme, who had passed away in August, and with whom I had served on BBSRC Council.
I also attended a high-level seminar on Food Security and climate change that we put together with senior figures from the producer and retail (supermarket) sector. Large businesses such as supermarkets well recognise the need for long-term visions involving sustainability, and equally recognise the importance of the research base in ensuring that we are prepared for what may reasonably be anticipated. This very successful seminar format, with short presentations – from Martin Parry, John Pickett and Martin Shirley – followed by extensive discussion, may well be the first of many designed to help us explore the research needs of businesses in our sectors.
One thing that has changed massively in biology over the years (and especially recent years) is the volume and complexity of data that biologists produce, and this brings with it the necessity to deal with it computationally. Since none of the most commonly available software has been designed for these kinds of purposes, biologists have perforce needed to develop their own, but it is unexceptional that they cannot and do not normally do this in a manner informed by the knowledge and the standards of professional software engineering. To avoid the most elementary mistakes (summarised in a recent article in Nature – and for statistics see one of my own) various strategies are possible (most obviously education, collaboration, and reskilling). However, much of the problem would be removed if all the software code was made available freely to folk so that one could reproduce what was done. An elementary scientific principle, but so far as software is concerned, and to some degree omics data analysis, one that has not yet entered mainstream biology.
At least the Open Access principle for the scientific literature continues to grow, and last week was Open Access Week. While the original paper is not Open Access, although the network and database it describes is freely available, I was pleased to see the citations of the consensus yeast metabolic network reconstruction push my H-index up to 60.
- Broadhurst, D. & Kell, D. B. (2006). Statistical strategies for avoiding false discoveries in metabolomics and related experiments. Metabolomics 2, 171-196
- Herrgård, M. J. et mult al. (2008). A consensus yeast metabolic network obtained from a community approach to systems biology. Nature Biotechnol. 26, 1155-1160
- Ioannidis, J. P. A., Allison, D. B., Ball, C. A., Coulibaly, I., Cui, X., Culhane, A. C., Falchi, M., Furlanello, C., Game, L., Jurman, G., Mangion, J., Mehta, T., Nitzberg, M., Page, G. P., Petretto, E. & van Noort, V. (2009). Repeatability of published microarray gene expression analyses. Nat Genet 41, 149-55
- Merali, Z. (2010). …Error. Nature 467, 775-7.