Last week, in between multiple internal meetings in Swindon, I gave talks (or more accurately a rather similar talk twice…) at two events. The first was a very interesting conference on systems medicine, arranged by Systems Biology Ireland. Certainly the part that I was able to attend was very wide ranging, including detailed models of metabolic and signalling networks that greatly aided the discovery of new diagnostics and therapies, and some very interesting advances in stem cells and how they might be targeted to damaged tissues. There was also a very interesting Panel discussion, as well as a great opportunity to hear of progress from Rudi Balling at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine. It was clear that at least this audience had entirely ‘got’ the systems medicine agenda, and that the subject was making rapid progress on multiple fronts.
Parts of large-scale systems biology and systems medicine involves measurement of systems variables, often nowadays referred to as ‘omics’ measurements. The question arises as to which omics might be preferred (and why), but one answer is not to worry and instead measure as many as possible. This is implicitly the strategy of Glasgow polyomics and my second talk was at its excellent launch symposium. I was also able to enjoy presentations on Plasmodium metabolomics by Manuel Llinás, on modern sequencing methods by Kent Davidson of Life Technologies, and on stratified pancreatic cancer treatment by Andrew Biankin. In each of these, the application of modern omics methods was again making real (and rapid) progress. In the latter case this was leading to a significant extension of lifespan in a disease with a historically poor prognosis.
Athene Donald’s recent blog commented that “Biological Physics” (as taken to be understood by the Biological Physics Group of the Institute of Physics) was likely to fare badly at BBSRC Committees as it was both interdisciplinary and did not necessarily have a hypothesis. I am loth to get into a blow-by-blow discussion of this in the blogosphere, not least since I pointed out that I am very positively disposed towards the subject, but I have to say that I see no evidence for this. Personally, my biophysical work was well funded by BBSRC when I was a full-time academic, was always interdisciplinary (typically involving a ‘wet’ and a ‘dry’ component) and very rarely hypothesis-dependent. Indeed I have written a paper and a commentary explaining why hypothesis-dependent approaches are not at all the most useful starting points for many (if not most) scientific investigations! Our standard referees’ forms entirely recognise this, stating “If the work is proposing or testing hypotheses, please comment on whether these hypotheses are clear and appropriate for meeting the objectives”. Note the “If”. The Tools and Resources Development Fund does not have an external referees’ form, while the Bioinformatics and Biological Resources fund has a separate referees’ form in which hypotheses are not mentioned. Similarly, I cannot recognise the basis for the comment about how “research around good health, as opposed to disease, is handled; this is neither within BBSRC or MRC remits”, since ‘Basic Bioscience Underpinning Health’ is explicitly one of our three chief foci, and we also contribute to the MRC-led cross-Council initiative on Lifelong Health and Wellbeing.
One message we do seek to give consistently is that if researchers are worried about their proposals ‘falling down the cracks’ between Research Councils they should talk to us first (before submission) about what it is they wish to do. That way we can identify the most appropriate lead Council and avoid any ‘double jeopardy’. Other Councils may well then co-fund ‘behind the scenes’, but applicants do not need to worry about that.
In common with other Research Councils, BBSRC monitors investment in multi- and inter-disciplinary research as an indicator of the health of its research base. The (obviously not perfect) metric used is the value of grants supported in non-life science departments or where there is a co-investigator located in a non-life science department (e.g. chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, mathematics). For BBSRC, this metric has increased steadily, from 26% in 2006, to 31% in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Finally, here, what we do do, however, is fund mainly via ‘responsive mode’, so if folk wish to see more work funded in Biological Physics (however defined) they need to write the relevant grant proposals (and also put themselves forward to serve on our Committees and Panels). We have awarded some pretty big grants in this area recently. Indeed, many of the speakers (not counting me) at the Physics meets Biology meeting have been or are currently supported by BBSRC funding, totalling £8M to date. Anyone can analyse our funding using the online Portfolio Analyser.
This provides an excellent opportunity to remind the community that we are undertaking five ‘roadshows’ or ‘conversations’ in the autumn, and that there are still places available for which folk are invited to sign up.
In an era in which social media can track one’s every move or search query, it is encouraging to know that this does not at least apply to some of the online bioinformatics resources; John Overington’s blog makes this explicit for ChEMBL.
- Kell DB, Oliver SG: Here is the evidence, now what is the hypothesis? The complementary roles of inductive and hypothesis-driven science in the post-genomic era. Bioessays 2004; 26:99-105
- Kell DB: Metabolites do social networking. Nat Chem Biol 2011; 7:7-8