Friday, May 04, 2007

Will the real systems biologist please stand up?

According to the NIH, you can't be a systems biologist and an experimental geneticist at the same time. The NIH has issued a call for applications to:

"use systems biology approaches to investigate the mechanisms that underlie genetic determination of complex phenotypes.  These projects will combine computational modeling approaches and experimental validation of predictive models."

This is exactly the kind of thing our lab is working on. We have expertise in both mathematical modeling and experimental genetics and biochemistry. But according to the NIH, my boss would have to find someone else to collaborate with if he wanted to apply for this particular grant:

"It is expected that a team of at least two principal investigators (PIs), one with expertise in systems biology and the other with expertise in the genetics of humans or model organisms, will apply for funding under this FOA.  Applications from a single investigator or that propose solely data production and accumulation will be considered non-responsive and will not be reviewed."

At this point, systems biology is such a chaotic, diverse field (you can't really call it a discipline) that it is really an absurd exercise to try to define who has "expertise in systems biology." Almost all of the people publishing what is called systems biology were trained in other disciplines - math, physics, engineering, computer science, and yes, biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology. (Just check out the faculty in Harvard's Department of Systems Biology.)

Computational biologist Sean Eddy (who trained as a molecular biologist) had the following to say about the team appraoch adovcated by the NIH:

"It's also depressing to read that the National Institutes of Health thinks that science has become too hard for individual humans to cope with, and that it will take the hive mind of an interdisciplinary “research team of the future” to make progress. But what's most depressing comes from purely selfish reasons: if groundbreaking science really requires assembling teams of people with proper credentials from different disciplines, then I have made some very bad career moves."

He goes on to talk about the biologist Howard Berg (who trained as a physicist):

"He's successfully applied physical, mathematical, and biological approaches to an important problem without enlisting an interdisciplinary team of properly qualified physicists, mathematicians, and biologists. As he recently wrote, perhaps he'll have to start collaborating with himself."

It is depressing to see that talented investigators who have skills in both areas are barred from applying under this application request.

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