“Ah welcome! Come in, come in!” said the institute director as Professor Smith appeared for their scheduled 2pm meeting. “I want to talk to you about your latest proposal”, the director continued.
“Oh?” replied Smith.
“Yes. Now, let’s see. It’s an amazing, visionary proposal, a great collaboration, and congratulations on pulling it together. I just have one question” said the director “This proposal will generate a huge amount of data – how do you plan to deal with it all?”
“Oh that’s easy!” answered Smith. “It’s all on page 6. We’ve requested funds to employ a bioinformatician for the lifetime of the project. They’ll deal with all of the data” he stated, triumphantly.
The director frowned.
“I see. Do you yourself have any experience of bioinformatics?”
Smith seemed uncertain.
“Then how will you be able to guide the bioinformatician, to ensure they are using appropriate tools? How will you train them?” the director pressed
Smith appeared perplexed by the question.
“We’ll employ someone who has already been trained, with at least a Masters in bioinformatics! They should already know what they’re doing…” Smith trailed off.
The director sighed.
“And what papers will the bioinformatician publish?”
Smith regained some confidence.
“They’ll get co-authorship on all of the papers coming out of the project. The post-docs who do the work will be first author, I will be last author and the bioinformatician will be in the middle”
The director drummed his fingers on his desk.
“What about a data management plan?”
“A data management plan. A plan, to manage the data. Where will it be stored? How will it be backed up? When will it be released?” the director asked
“Same as always, I guess” said Smith. “We’ll release supporting data as supplementary PDFs, and we’ll make sure we get every last publication we possibly can before releasing the full data set”
The director shifted uneasily in his seat. “And data storage?”
“Don’t IT deal with that kind of stuff?” Smith answered.
An awkward silence settled over the office. The director stared at Professor Smith. Finally he broke the silence.
“OK, so you have this bioinformatician, you give them the data, and they analyse it and they give you the results. How will you ensure that they’ve carried out reproducible science?”
“Reproducible what? What the hell are you talking about?” Smith answered angrily.
The director slammed his hand down on the desk.
“At least tell me you have a plan for dealing with the sequence data!”
“Of course!” said Smith “We’ve been doing this for years. We’ll keep the sequences in Word documents….”
an amber light started flashing on the director’s desk
“… annotate genes by highlighting the sequence in blue…”
the flashing light turned red
“… annotate promoters by highlighting the sequence in orange…”
Smith’s sentence was interrupted by a noisy klaxon suddenly going off, accompanied by a bright blue flashing light that had popped up behind the director’s chair. Smith looked wide-eyed, terrified.
The director pressed a few buttons on his desk and the noisy alarm ceased, the blue light disappeared.
Smith, removing his hands from his ears, asked “What the hell was that?”
The director stood, walked over to the window and sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, Smith. I had a feeling this might happen. Look… this may appear harsh, but… you’re not allowed bioinformatics anymore”
“As I said. You’ve crossed the threshold. You’re not allowed bioinformatics anymore”
Smith’s mouth flapped open and shut as he tried to take in the news.
“You mean no-one will analyse my data?”
The director turned to face Smith.
“Quite the contrary, Smith. Good data will always be welcome, and yours will be treated no differently. It’s just that you won’t be in charge of the storage and analysis of it anymore. You can generate the data, but that will be the end of your involvement. The data will be passed to a bioinformatics group who know what to do with it.”
Smith was furious.
“Are you insane? That’s my data! I can do whatever I like with it! Bioinformaticians won’t know what to do with it anyway!”
“On the contrary” replied the director “It’s not your data. Your research is funded by the government, which is in turn funded by the tax payer. The data belong in the public domain. As for bioinformaticians, they’re scientists too and they’ll be able to analyse your data just as well as you can, probably better”
“I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous! Who decided that I’m not allowed bioinformatics anymore?”
“The Universe? Why should the Universe say I’m not allowed bioinformatics anymore?”
“Because you haven’t paid bioinformatics enough attention. It’s not a support service, at your beck and call. It’s a science. Bioinformaticians are scientists too. Young bioinformaticians need support, guidance and training; something you’re clearly not qualified to provide. They also need first-author papers to advance their careers”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean, they’re not support?!” spluttered Smith.
The director continued regardless of the interruption.
“You’ve had the opportunity to learn about bioinformatics. We’ve had a bioinformatics research group at the institute for over ten years, yet you only ever speak to them at the end of a project when you’ve already generated the data and need their help!”
“The bioinformatics group?! They’re just a bunch of computer junkies!”
The director was beginning to get angry.
“Quite the opposite. They publish multiple research papers every year, and consistently bring in funding. More than your group, actually”.
Smith looked stunned.
“But, but, but… how can this be possible? You’ll never get away with this!”
“I’m afraid I can and I will” said the director. “Science has changed, Smith. It’s a brave new world out there. Bioinformatics is key to the success of many major research programmes and bioinformaticians are now driving those programmes. Those researchers who embrace bioinformatics as a new and exciting science will be successful and those that don’t will be left behind.”
The director stared pointedly at Professor Smith. Smith was defeated, but still defiant.
“It doesn’t matter. We have tons of data we haven’t published yet. I’ll be able to work on that for decades! I don’t need new data, I have plenty of existing data”.
A smile flittered at the corners of the director’s mouth.
“Here’s the thing, Smith. As soon as that alarm went off, all of your data were zipped into a .tar.gz archive and uploaded to the cloud. It’s no longer in your possession”.
Smith looked horrified.
“What’s the cloud? How do I access it? What is a .tar.gz file and how do I open it?”
“You know” said the director “keep asking questions like that, and you might get bioinformatics back”
If you are leading a project that creates huge amounts of data, instead of employing a bioinformatician in your own group, why not collaborate with an existing bioinformatics group and fund a post there? The bioinformatician will benefit hugely from being around more knowledgeable computational biologists, and will still be dedicated to your project.
The above was hugely Inspired by “Ballantyne T (2012) If only … Nature 489(7414):170-170”. I hope Tony doesn’t mind.