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Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology
of the barriers that affect research at the BioComp interface. Chapter 11 is devoted to proposing possible ways of helping to reduce the negative impact of these barriers.
10.2ORGANIZATIONS AND INSTITUTIONS
Efforts to pursue research at the BioComp interface, as well as the parallel goal of attracting and training a sufficient workforce, are supported by a number of institutions and organizations in the public and private sectors. A prime mover is the U.S. government, both by pursuing research in its own laboratories, and by providing funding to other, largely academic, organizations. However, the government is only a part of a larger web of collaborating (and competing) academic departments, private research institutions, corporations, and charitable foundations.
10.2.1The Nature of the Community
The members of an established scientific community can usually be identified by a variety of commonalities—fields in which their degrees were received, journals in which they publish, and so on.2 The fact that important work at the BioComp interface has been undertaken by individuals who do not necessarily share such commonalities indicates that the field in question has not jelled into a single community, but in fact is composed of many subcommunities. Members of this community may come from any of a number of specialized fields, including (but not restricted to) biology, computer science, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. (Indeed, as the various epistemological and ontological discussions of previous chapters suggest, even philosophers and historians of science may have a useful role to play.)
Because the intellectual contours of work at the intersection have not been well established, the definition of the community must be broad and is necessarily somewhat vague. Any definition must encompass a multitude of cultures and types, leaving room for approaches that are not yet known. Furthermore, the field is sufficiently new that people may enter it at many different stages of their careers.
For perspective, it is useful to consider some possible historical parallels with the establishment of biochemistry, biophysics, and bioengineering as autonomous disciplines. In each case, the phenomena associated with life have been sufficiently complex and interesting to warrant the bringing to bear of specialized expertise and intellectual styles originating in chemistry, physics, and engineering. Nonbiologists, including chemists, physicists, and engineers, have made progress on some biologically significant problems precisely because their approaches to problems differed from those of biologists and thus have advanced biological understanding because they were not limited by what biologists felt could not be understood. On the other hand, chemists, physicists, and engineers have also pursued many false or unproductive lines of inquiry because they have not appreciated the complexity that characterizes many biological phenomena or because they addressed problems that biologists already regarded as solved. Eventually, biochemistry, biophysics, and bioengineering became established in their own right as education and cultural inculcation from both parent disciplines came to be required.
It is also to be expected that the increasing integration of computing and information into biology will raise difficult questions about the nature of biological research and science. If an algorithm to examine the phylogenetic tree of life is too slow to run on existing hardware, clearly a new algorithm must be developed. Does developing such an algorithm constitute biological research? Indeed, modern biology is sufficiently complex that many of the most important biological problems are not easily tamed by existing mathematical theory, computational models, or computing technologies. Ultimately, success in understanding biological phenomena will depend on the development and application of new tools throughout the research process.
T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.