“Biologists see physicists as human calculators”

My essay ‘All Biology is Computational Biology‘ was fueled by my frustrations of seeing computational scientists being treated as second-rate citizens in biology. And the physicists feel the same pain, says Robert Austin in Nature:

The cancer community has been unenthusiastic about the contributions of physical oncologists. When, several years ago, we proposed a special section on the physics of cancer for a high-profile journal, oncology referees were dismissive. One admitted: “I am not a big fan of the topic.” Another reviewer rejected the proposal because genetics “is the Rosetta Stone with respect to treatment”. Wrote another: “I did not recognize any of the proposed authors.”

These responses will sound familiar to anybody from a non-bio or non-med background who tries to get anything done in biomedicine.

Too often, biologists see physicists as human calculators. The big ideas, they think, belong to them, with physicists filling in the details by performing quantitative analyses.

Wait … I thought those calculators were the bioinformaticians.

To counter this attitude, the Francis Crick Institute in London, for instance, is actively searching for physicists with transformative ideas. We need to do more than hire ‘quants’ to crunch ‘big data’.

Ah .. there we are: the quants crunching big data – that’s us.

I sympathise with Austin, but wonder how he sees the relationship between physicists and other quantitative folks in biology.

From my perspective there is a divide between the data analysts (the camp I am in) and the modellers, which is already hard to bridge.


Update Oct 25: And he should not just have mentioned that newly built big box with colourful floors, but also funding schemes like CRUK’s Multidisciplinary Project Award. More here:


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