As a molecular biophysicist I often hear talks (and see posters) given by bioinformaticists.* I am struck by how these are almost uniformly abysmal. I'm not necessarily referring to the data, but rather the presentation as a whole. This has reached the point where I don't think I can bring myself to sit through another bioinformatics talk (or poster presentation) for at least the next three months.
Why has the quality of the now dozens of such talks I've suffered through been so low?
In the majority of cases I posit it's a combination, in varying degrees, of a lack of imagination and a disconnection from the underlying biology. Too many of these presenters regale their audiences with interminable laundry lists of how property X is over-represented in sequences of class A, and under-represented in sequences of class B. Ummmm... So what? Why should I care? Often such presenters either don't know or are too lazy to spend the time connecting their data with known biology. As an example, I recently sat through a talk where the speaker made a big deal about the prevalence of glutamine-rich sequences in proteins involved in transcription. Not once did he refer to the fairly substantial body of experimental data on these very same sequences. In fact, when asked, he couldn't offer up any explanation for this observation.** Major fail.
I can't explain why this happens. Obviously it shouldn't. Perhaps it's a function of the relatively immature nature of bioinformatics as a field. It's still at a stage where method development trumps method application. Application of the intelligent kind.
I remember when macromolecular crystallography talks suffered from similar issues. They would often be these long detailed descriptions of the structure(s) just solved by the crystallographer. No connection to the biology, just the details of the structure. Listen, I don't give a rat's arse that there's a type VIIb turn between helices 7 and 8. What I want to know is what the structure tells us about the biology. Nowadays most crystallographers do make the connections. One can't get a grant for simply solving structures any more.***
I've heard through the grapevine that getting a grant to do bioinformatics has become increasingly difficult. More so than would be expected from the downturn in science funding. Perhaps we'll see the field forced to mature more rapidly and presentations improve.
* By "bioinformatics" I mean the data-mining thing. A colleague once defined it thusly: "Bioinformatics is the mining of biological databases for profit (not necessarily of the monetary kind)." This is distinct from computational biology which, at least at the molecular level, tends to employ an energy function of sorts.
** Glutamine-rich regions can be involved in DNA binding - the glutamine side chain is quite good at making hydrogen bonds with nucleic acids.
*** Not when I'm reviewing the grant. :-)