A sociology of biologists and bioinformaticians

Posted by Stuart on July 20, 2015 · 3 mins read

Morgan Taschuk’s posting “Biologists and bioinformaticians have different software needs” makes for an interesting read, but it’s drawn a fascinating amount of really quite strongly felt responses.

However, big caveat: it’s not fair to put this at Morgan’s door, she was reporting BOSC, and others were raising it there:

So why this “kerfuffle”?

There are two elements I’d like to cover in this post, which isn’t exactly a reply. But fair warning: both involve committing sociology.

Social structure of science

The first issue is how science works. We often have a fairly naive understanding of science, often rooted in some mythic variant of Popper’s logical positivism: science is open about its aims, hypotheses are tested in public, and so on. Kuhn’s alternative – crisis and revolution – describes major changes in direction, but doesn’t really touch on the reality of actual scientific progress. Michael Mulkay described a third “branching” model of science: small communities fragmenting and transforming as people move between them.

In this model, “biology” especially, and even “computational biology” (but also “bioinformatics”) are a bit meaningless. There are people who specialize in the effects of MEK inhibitors on solid tumours, and these have more in common with bioinformaticians than they do with, for example, computational biologists who focus on memory and learning.

And within a research focus, there are typically four elements:

  • Research questions (“how do MEK inhibitors affect melanoma?”)
  • Domain-specifying assumptions (“cell biology can be explained by genetic processes”)
  • Substantive assumptions (“cancers like melanoma are genetic disorders”)
  • Methodological assumptions (“genetic disorders are investigated by sequencing, etc.”)

All four are equal bases to a research field. So a computational biologist, who might be more interested in the research questions and the domain-specifying assumptions, still needs to acknowledge the methodological elements of their work – which might be the primary interest of a bioinformatician.

Both computational biologists and bioinformaticians exist, they might (or might not) be the same people. The distinction is blurred, and even more so when you look at an individual team.

This distinction is a bit different to Morgan’s – and we might want to discuss it, but I’d consider that computational biologists would primarily focus on the research questions and the domain, and bioinformaticians would primarily focus on the methodology. Both are equally important to high-quality research, as they complement each other.

And so, in typical groups today, bioinformaticians are (very like statisticians) often involved multiple projects, and therefore have a special significance as they connect the branches in Mulkay’s model of science. That is where interesting stuff happens, as the methods they develop can cross-fertilize research teams.

Social identity

Identity is about how people see themselves. Personally, I see myself as a psychologist, a developer, to an extent a bioinformatician, and as a strictly amateur (computational) biologist. That’s my view of myself, to some extent formed by my education, my peers, my work, and so on. Also note: I can be all of these at the same time – I don’t have to be one or the other.

Second, identity is strongly felt. It’s been a major factor in wars – not that I’m expecting a major armed struggle between biologists and bioinformaticians in the immediate future.

What do you don’t do, though, is call out other people on their identity. It’s like going up to a principal investigator and saying “you’re not a proper researcher”. Respect people’s choices of identity, and don’t impose it on them any more than you’d impose a cultural label on them.

Okay, so this is all a bit postmodernist and relativist, so how do we know who’s really a bioinformatician or a computational biologist?

You actually don’t. Definitions don’t work for identity. First, it’s partly social (i.e., does your employer have it as a job title, is there a degree programme?) and second, it changes all the time depending on context. I’m not a bioinformatician when cooking or enjoying a nice beer. I am at work, and it is somewhere between the two when watching a movie about dinosaurs.

What I think happened is: BOSC is by title a bioinformatics conference, but some folks there (disclaimer: I wasn’t there) made the (completely normal in many fields) impedance mismatch between research questions and methodological focus into a community problem.

That can be good if the subsequent discussion improves the research integration, enabling branching and merging as computational biologists and bioinformaticians move between groups. It can be very bad if turns into a conflict about identity.

You can also follow me on Twitter or on Github.