I acted as editor and reviewer for a recent opinion piece in Frontiers titled “Who qualifies to be a bioinformatician?”.   Whilst many find this navel-gazing boring, I do understand the need for bioinformaticians to define themselves, with so much expected of us, from setting up BLAST servers, administering websites, carrying detailed statistical analysis, supporting core facilities, supporting researchers, building databases, training others and fixing the bloody printer.

In the above paper, the following section seems to have hit home, with a few people picking up on the mechanic metaphor:

Bioinformaticians are scientists who develop and conduct research based on a bioinformatics approach, they do not just use the tools to better understand a biological problem. It is a little like saying that driving your car to work does not make you a mechanic.

The message is clear.  If “all” you do is use bioinformatics software, then you are not a bioinformatician; equally, if “all” you do is drive a car, it doesn’t make you a mechanic.  I can see what the authors are going for here, and I agree, but only to an extent.

You see, a mechanic can take an existing car, and they can fix it; replace parts. They can tweak it and improve performance.  But they can’t build you a car from scratch.  So we can extend/torture the mechanic metaphor and say “just because you can fix a car, it doesn’t mean you can build one”.  So perhaps “mechanics” are like pipeline builders in bioinformatics.  They can put things together, but ask them to create something new, and they are (often) lost.

We can go further.  The people who build cars are not those who design them.  That’s a completely different set of skills.  Of course in software, design and build are often (but not always) carried out by the same people, but as we all have seen, that can have disastrous consequences, resulting in sophisticated software that no-one can use.  We may wish to think harder about separating design from build in bioinformatics, there are benefits.

Beyond the designers are the engineers, who figure out how the car will actually work.  Improving on the original design of the internal combustion engine; improving performance; engineering new parts and new techniques that will make the car better, quicker, safer, more powerful or more economic.

So which type of bioinformatician are you?  Engineer, designer, builder, fixer (mechanic) or user?  Oh wait, I forgot, the “user” isn’t a bioinformatician.  So what are they?  Hello “Data Scientist”!!