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ISCB to Play More Active Role in Growing Bioinformatics Community, Says President-Elect

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As the International Society for Computational Biology continues to expand and its members hail from an increasingly broader range of disciplines, the challenges for the society multiply in lockstep. But president-elect Phil Bourne said that a few fundamental issues he plans to tackle in the coming year will serve as a strong foundation for the group’s continued growth.

Bourne, who is currently secretary of the ISCB, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego, and the director of integrated biosciences at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, spoke to BioInform last week about his vision for bolstering the framework of the society to better address the needs of the bioinformatics community. Chief among Bourne’s goals is to raise the prominence of the society, “not by branding but by actually doing things,” he said.

Although ISCB membership is now close to 1,400 and attendance at the society’s annual Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology meeting is expected to surpass 1,800 in August 2002, Bourne said the society is still “not well recognized.”

As an example, Bourne noted that at a recent meeting with the Interunion Bioinformatics Group — a joint initiative of the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics, the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the International Union of Crystallography, and the Committee on Data for Science and Technology — “most of those people hadn’t heard of ISCB.” Greater visibility in the general scientific community, Bourne said, will be necessary for the society to gain influence and better serve the needs of its rapidly growing membership.

Until now, Bourne said, “the ISMB meeting drove the development of the society, rather than the other way around.” ISCB has no full-time support staff, no permanent office, and the bulk of the group’s activities are still handled in the limited spare time of the executive committee and board, led by current president Russ Altman of Stanford University.

“The society needs to become professional,” said Bourne. “So the goal of the coming year is to establish a permanent office, establish a permanent staff, and begin to move forward in several key areas.”

Bourne said these areas include formalizing the ISCB’s relationships with special interest groups such as bio-ontologies, bio-pathways, and the Bioinformatics Open Source Conference, which hold satellite meetings associated with ISMB each year. The society will also work to build appropriate relationships with regional ISCB affiliates in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Europe. “We should use the facilities of the society to help with regional meetings in a way we haven’t been able to do until now,” said Bourne. Closer relationships with other major annual bioinformatics meetings, such as the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing and RECOMB, are also planned.

One major area of focus for the group in the coming year will be its support of bioinformatics educational initiatives at both the academic and the industry level. ISCB already has an educational working group in place to define the scope of the appropriate curriculum for bioinformatics training. This group will likely expand its involvement in the community through grants and educational workshops that feature presentations by society members.

Bourne hopes that over the next year, the ISCB website (www.iscb.org) will serve as a portal for various educational initiatives around the world. “People who are starting up courses could review what was out there and contribute to the portal as well as develop their own courses,” he said.

The society website will also serve as a job bulletin board. Bourne noted that, in contrast to most scientific societies, a significant portion of ISCB members are in non-academic settings, presenting the society with the additional challenge of benefiting its corporate members just as much as its academic members. Thus, a key responsibility for the full-time ISCB staff will be to foster corporate sponsorship of the society.

Bourne said the ISCB office would be located at SDSC this year, where the society will have access to staff and resources for web development, PR materials, and other logistical matters.

The ISCB’s push to increase its visibility in the scientific community has already begun. The board issued a statement last week in support of the Public Library of Science initiative and plans to release similar announcements in the coming months.

“There are clearly things that happen within governments and globally that affect our science and we need to have a collective voice on how we respond to those things,” said Bourne.

— BT

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