Bioinformatics in the UK, China and India

Bioinformatics has recently been recognised in the UK as a ‘huge priority for government’ with the ‘potential to drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation and ultimately transform lives.’ (UK Medical Research Council, 2014). While there is wide agreement among nations regarding the importance of bioinformatics, there is little consensus over possible pathways for maximising its contribution to the life sciences. A recent paper by Salter, Zhou and Datta (2015) explores the extent to which bioinformatics have become a strategic priority for India, China and the UK, and how these efforts are shaping or are in turn being shaped by the existing norms, rules and institutions in the global lifesciences.

Bioinformatics is the combination of knowledge, skills and techniques of biology made 'readable' with computer science, statistics and mathematics. The traditional view of the role of mathematics and computer science in bioinformatics was that of a 'means' to the end of capturing and understanding increasingly data-intensive biological knowledge production e.g. as with genomic data. However, in the last few years a more balanced view has emerged that considers computer science and mathematical tools as both the object and instrument of knowledge production. Leonelli’s (2012: 2) comment that ‘data-intensive methods are changing what counts as good science’- is perhaps nowhere more relevant today than in bioinformatics where the tug-of-war for primacy between two disparate branches of science (mathematics and biology) has become increasingly polarized.

For nations, in particular emerging economies, these spaces of rapidly advancing technology, uncertainty and political tensions that sit uncomfortably within the hegemonic norms, rules and institutions in the global lifesciences increasingly represent spaces of future growth and opportunities for catching up with the west. For emerging economies, the ensuing shift from ‘developmental state’ into what has been described as the ‘adaptive state’ and the ‘transformative state’ signals the opportunity to shape global lifesciences according to their national interests (Kim, 1999Salter, 2009aWu, 2004; Wong, 2005). For the west, the changing nature of ‘science’ and simultaneously the changing role of emerging economies’ participation in global sciences, questions the established mutually beneficial relationship between ‘state and science’ – where science supplies the state with a flow of knowledge, and the state supplies science with the resources to pursue research interests – the fundamental question being how to accommodate transnational science with national interest?

Yet, it would be mistake to presume that the changing nature of science presents only opportunities and few challenges for emerging economies. From a political perspective, the mutually beneficial state-science relationship at the heart of western domination of global lifesciences since WWII never really developed in India, China or Brazil. Simply put, science in the BRICS lacked political value – until now; thus today, for science to progress the key need is to forge and nurture the ‘science and state’ relationship. Furthermore, while a scientific elite is emerging in the BRICS, their experience in negotiating the key science-state relationship to take the national scientific ambition forward is lacking - although the reverse influx of seasoned diaspora (to the BRICS) from elite western scientific communities is helpful. Similarly, the institutional tools generated by more than sixty years of western domination of global lifesciences is reflected in the hegemonic dynamic of today's global bioinformatics governance and in turn disadvantages new entrants like the BRICS whose establishment of similar institutional strengths is still in its nascent stages. For instance, the Bermuda rules of 1996 enabled the development of bioinformatics self-regulation in western nations, but at the exclusion of China and India.

In the case of China, a top-down style of innovation governance has been adopted with the State Council setting the 'science' agenda with its Five Year Plans. Similarly, India’s Planning Commission’s (recently dissolved) has so far used a similar mechanism of Five Year Plans to set the agenda for the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and the Department of Technology (DIT). In contrast the UK's bottom-up approach with funding from both public and private sources is strengthened by a state apparatus that collaborates closely with a science-led (and scientific elite led) agenda. Neverthless, the Chinese or Indian state's committment to becoming global players cannot be doubted. For instance, between 2005 and 2014, China invested a whopping £303 million in bioinformatics compared to India’s £18 million and UK’s £163.9 million. However, a close study reveals that the bulk of China’s funding of £216 million while earmarked under the broad category of ‘bioinformatics’ was further earmarked under the sub-category ‘New Drug Creation and Development (2009-2010)’ – implying that states differ in their interpretation of what constitutes or differentiates bioinformatics from biomedical innovation.

That western hegemonic domination of global lifesciences has extended into bioinformatics is an accepted fact. However, the extent to which this status quo will be retained given the changing nature of science and the spaces of opportunity it has created for the BRICS to climb ever higher in the global lifesciences value chain, is worth questioning.

To read the paper in full, click here.