Wednesday, 3 June 2009

amateur, pet, student

Most (maybe all) of what is now called ‘bioinformatics’ grew from amateur projects, pet projects or student projects. In any case, at the time (20—25 years ago), it was near impossible to get any funding to do it. Never mind that, the bioinformatics had a distinct advantage over experimental biology that it did not require much in terms of ‘materials’ (as in ‘Materials and Methods’) except access to a computer and, increasingly, Internet. That allowed people to do whatever they wanted to do without any need to go to the lab. The chemoinformatics could have been like that — except it was not. There was no chemical databases in public domain, period. When we just started to work on ChEBI in 2003, we were told that we shouldn’t really bother since “all useful chemical data is commercial”. Boy, the times have changed. For an instant reference on any topic, we look up Wikipedia, not Britannica.

In my view, ChemSpider was one of such amateur (in a best sense of this word) enterprises — that is, until it was acquired by the Royal Society of Chemistry last month. (Good thing it was not acquired by CAS.) There was a lot of excitement in blogosphere; I found comments by John Wilbanks and Rich Apodaca most interesting. Undoubtedly, the chemical community as a whole should be a winner. And yet... According to Antony Williams,
“What originally started as a hobby project to give back something to the chemistry community has become one of the primary internet resources for Chemistry. And this from home built computers in a basement, with no funding and a team of volunteers. With the resources, reputation and vision of the RSC to support ChemSpider our long term goal is to deliver the primary online platform where chemists will resource information and collaborate with a worldwide community of scientists.”
Exactly: a hobby project became a leading chemoinformatics resource. Something that the RSC, in spite of its great “resources, reputation and vision”, has failed to deliver.

So, amid much congratulations and celebrations, I allow myself to privately mourn a loss of a brilliant amateur project.

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