Thoughts on the supply of bioinformatics services and training in the UK

I am currently at the 2014 UK Genome Sciences meeting (hashtag #UKGS2014). It has been a long time since I have been at a UK science conference and it has been good to meet old colleagues and acquaintances who I have known from various stages of my career.

From informal chats with various people, it seems that UK universities are tackling their bioinformatics needs in different ways. Some have specialized facilities that try to meet the bioinformatics need from local users (and potentially from those further afield). E.g. the University of Surrey has a Bioinformatics Core Facility, Newcastle University has a Bioinformatics Support Unit, and here at Oxford there is the Computational Biology Research Group.

These examples represent core facilities with dedicated staff. An alternative approach is to bring together — physically or virtually — existing bioinformatics talent, with a view that they will be able to help others. This is the strategy taken by the new Bioinformatics Hub at the University of Sheffield, which brings together six talented folk who are based in different departments. The success of strategies like this may heavily depend on having enough skilled bioinformatics faculty who also have enough time to help others.

Other universities seem to lack any central pooling of bioinformatics expertise, and instead rely on people doing bioinformatics themselves or outsourcing it to places like TGAC. The former approach (doing it yourself) will be fine for some people, particularly those who are comfortable learning new computational skills themselves, but this will not be a good fit for everyone. 

If you are not outsourcing your bioinformatics and you don't have the necessary skills yourself, then the other approach is to attend one or more training courses. Three places that seem to be leading the field for bioinformatics training are TGACCGAT, and Edinburgh Genomics…and all three have a heavy presence at this conference.

Depending on your definition, bioinformatics has been around — as either a recognized skill set, or a field of study — since the early 1990s. The number of people who might consider themselves a bioinformatician has probably grown exponentially since then. Likewise, the demand for skilled bioinformaticians, or for facilities that offer bioinformatics services and training, continues to grow. Clearly, there are different ways of meeting this demand.

The current diversity of approaches to bioinformatics services and training presumably is a reflection on the local supply of, and demand for, such services. If you are about to join a new university, and if you plan on needing some bioinformatics help at some point, it may be useful to first find out more about that university's bioinformatics strategy.