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    Systems Biology Post-Docs May Have A New Best Friend In...Philip Morris?
    By Hank Campbell | February 18th 2014 03:15 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

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    When you think of systems biology, you don't ordinarily think of process verification and methodology.Sure, there has been data verification in biology and clinical trials in pharmaceuticals, but best methods and best practices don't really exist for systems biology.

    And when you think of systems biology, you really don't think of Philip Morris, the cigarette folks.

    It may be time to rethink both.

    One-size-fits-all science does not work, it is often said. Well, first things first, we can argue it certainly does. Dramatically different fields use the scientific method and 'method' is the operative term. A method implies reliability and consistency. In the brave, new world of systems biology and its big data, being able to think less about the process will free up more time for creative thought about the hypothesis.

    So let's talk about IMPROVER

    The money behind this is Philip Morris International, who among the political demographic that aligns with science academia and science media ranks right around Monsanto and John Boehner in ethical credibility. Regardless of what they did 60 years ago, today they are helping to nudge systems biology into the 21st century, by spearheading a project that has no applied benefit, costs nothing for end users and even gives out prize money for the highest-scoring lab. In the process (pardon the pun), they may help to shake up a legacy culture that ordinarily requires post-docs to wait in line and compete against very experienced senior grant writers before they can work on their own projects.

    And their first and foremost goal is transparency and crowd-powering answers.

    That's right, this ain't your daddy's cigarette company.


    Crowd-sourcing verification processes? A jamboree? Who knew systems biology could be so much fun? Source: sbvIMPROVER

    Okay, so why would independent science media give free publicity to multi-billion dollar companies like Philip Morris and IBM? Shouldn't they be getting love from corporate science media instead?(1)  For the same reason I am excited about Big Data tools. Government grants are not going to do anything useful in creating tools and methods for Big Data, the private sector will, and they may do it for reasons that have nothing at all to do with science. (2) But process verification can help a lot. And I think it is going to be the great equalizer, the thing that makes a small lab in the Mid-West able to compete with Johns Hopkins and its $1 billion in government science funding. But no NSF- or NIH-funded project could ever come close to building it, just like the NSF couldn't create Science 2.0.

    I was intrigued by the program so I got on a phone call with Dr. Hugh Browne, Director of Scientific Communications at PMI who is also a PhD in molecular biology with 20 years of research experience, and IBM's Joerg Sprengel, an expert in the application of information technology in drug discovery and development, to talk about IMPROVER. It was an enlightening talk.

    IMPROVER stands for Industrial Methodology for PROcess VErification in Research and, while words like 'industrial' and 'verification' are anathema to many academics, young researchers have instead been raised in a culture of technology where lots of companies have done good work that benefits the public and scientists, by making lots of tasks cleaner. Young researchers today embrace the future of technology.

    That's going to be a big advantage, because while the previous generation of scientists ran into problems understanding statistics, the current crop of systems biologists will also have that and a lot more processes to deal with, if they are going to successful understanding all of the biological, genetic and chemical processes in play. As quality researchers continue to postpone retirement, the competition for grants - and the average age of the first R01 - continues to go up. If researchers are going to be able to tackle the fundamental questions of basic research, they can't be bogged down in process thinking. 

    It may not immediately seem like industrial process verification is a benefit for science but, to people who look at things from a distance, there is an information-induced train wreck coming at the life sciences. Their systems biology work is proof of concept. There's no reason, as Browne and Sprengel noted on our phone call, that the methodology couldn't be used in drug discovery or biotechnology or anything else to come up with best practices. Learning to think like Apple or the chip-package-board verification teams at Intel is a very good idea. 

    The short-term benefits are obvious: fewer retractions dues to errors, generating data that is 'gold standard' and being able to predict responses due to heat or stress or whatever and having libraries already in place to match. Imagine a systems biology future where you can predict from a rat to a human and know the answers are correct. It's a pretty good place to be.

    Does crowd-sourcing systems biology verification interest you? Their Network Verification Challenge closes next week so it may be too late to do anything but it gives you an idea what they are about.

    NOTES:

    (1) Though invariably money will be invoked. Cui bono? ('for whose benefit?') conspiracy theorists do that a lot. When I am not being called a liberal commie fag junkie by the right I am called an oil-guzzling, vampire-baby-loving Nazi by the left. And then they all claim I am somehow getting rich writing the science they choose not to accept on the Internet. No, I was not paid to write this article. That's also why it took a year to finish. The backlog of stuff I will someday write about for free is pretty big. 

    (2) Why? Because science is not where the money is. Yes, it is a $120 billion constituency but half of that comes from taxpapers and an alarming number of scientists insist science should have no defined benefit. That is not the way to appeal to the public. Big Data will instead be solved for the benefit of people who control government science - politicians. Knowing which babies to kiss and when to kiss them will be the Holy Grail of Big Data quests for both political campaigns and advertising. Then that process will, in turn, help science.

    Comments

    Aw, somebody just fell off the turnip truck. Directors of big corporations have been shoveling out the company's money to their pet charities in the name of "goodwill" since forever. And geting a tax writeoff for it, too. You might be interested to know who the controlling shareholders voted in as directors, namely, the usual Fortune 500 types - not the media stereotypes.
    http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/764180/000119312513141364/d470796...

    Hank
    Systems biology is a charity? And thanks for calling me stupid without having a shred of evidence. It's nice to know that my Note 1 prediction was the very first comment.
    If the IRS allows it, it's a charity. I think that failing to be cynical about corporate giving is turnip truck-worthy. All corporations.

    Hank
    I get it now. Hey, I am thrilled you are part of the 1% and have never worked for a corporation. But not everyone is landed gentry like you, plenty of people have had to work at corporations, and I bet they are not even aware how evil and dishonest and unethical they are for taking the paycheck they need and clearly you do not. 

    But you should be more like benevolent nobility and not rub poor peoples' faces in your wealth and elite status. You see the truth about how gullible the rest of us are, and that turnip truck isn't all that easy to see from the inside. Thanks for making the rest of the world aware we are so stupid and you are so enlightened. You are in a good place.
    No, Hank, you've got it completely backwards. I'm the kind of person who works at corporations. Tthe people in charge of corporate gift-giving are the 1%. That's why they're on a board of directors and I am not. It's no big deal to me that the money is coming from Philip Morris. And I know that everything the mass media have said about their "ethical credibility" is a flagrant lie. PM was in fact full of the usual elite nincompoops who believed in the anti-smokers' junk science, and still do to this day. That's why, instead of attacking that junk science, they shoveled out money to their worst enemies to help them find alleged chemical carcinogens-of-the-day, so they could run to the media with scare propaganda. Look how the anti-smokers spun that travesty 180 degrees! They pretended that Philip Morris was supposedly corrupting science and trying to exonerate itself. As if! Then, when opportunities to exonerate themselves developed, PM failed to use them. Remember how Jonathan M. Samet lied under oath at the Minnesota tobacco trial that smoking causes ulcers, when by then it had become evident that Helicobacter pylori was the real cause of those ulcers. Furthermore, on top of ring-leading every Surgeon General report and most of the "independent" ETS reports including that of the EPA, this liar Samet is now the head of the scientific committee of the FDA committee on tobacco. All without a squeak of protest from Big Tobacco! As for this latest SG report, which expands the list of purported "smoking-related diseases," its fraud is obvious only to those who are familiar with the scientific literature who know what they left out. Those diseases are ones in which CMV and EBV are causal, yet the report cynically omitted any mention of those viruses!
    http://www.smokershistory.com/rheumat.html
    So, I have grave concerns that this project is just another tool for the charlatans to use to make their rubbish look more convincing.

    logicman
    Hank: it's rather strange that anyone would attack you on a science topic with mention of turnips.

    Lord Charles "Turnip" Townshend either discovered or popularized the science method based Norfolk crop rotation system - wheat, clover, barley and turnips - that replaced the wasteful fallow system and led to a boost in agricultural productivity.  People like Townshend had a major controlling interest in agriculture in the same way that modern corporations do.  That is to say, he was a seeker after profits.  According to the peasant classes he was a money-grabbing **** who stole common land, much like Charles 1 and his cronies.  On the other hand, he ranks with those such as the Dutch drainer of marshland, Cornelius Vermuyden, who helped put cheap food on English tables while incidentally promoting science.  Oh, yes - and gentleman farmer's profits.

    btw, the seizure of common land for drainage in preparation for intensive farming was a contributing cause of the English Civil War.  Cromwell, after the defeat of the king, authorised payments to Vermuyden to continue his unpopular drainage schemes.  The fact that Cromwell was a gentleman farmer aka wealthy landowner is of course no proof that he acted in his own financial interest - I am sure he acted from purely ethical motives.  In modern England, comments in our newspapers call for Dutch expertise to drain the very Somerset levels where Vermuyden made huge sums of money by trampling on the common land rights of the local people.

    Plus ça changeTM - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

    Sorry, no links.  At this moment, according to my internet service provider, the English language wikipedia simply does not exist.