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Microsoft's 2020 Vision for Science


By Kevin Davies

May 12, 2006 | When one thinks of the premier software companies in life sciences, Microsoft isn’t necessarily the first name that springs to mind. Sure, Bill Gates has done and continues to do a wonderful job through his medical foundation, lavishly funding research programs to combat infectious diseases in underdeveloped nations and identify new global health priorities. But his company has never enjoyed the reputation among bench researchers that Apple has, and has shown little regard in trying to erase that perception. Lately, however, rumblings from Redmond suggest this is changing. Last year, Gates personally launched the EuroScience initiative (see March 2005 Bio-IT World, p. 42). Microsoft’s high-performance computing cluster software drew praise from the BioTeam test center (see Nov. 2005 Bio-IT World, p. 34).

And as officially unveiled at last month’s Bio-T World Conference in Boston, Microsoft has finally given birth to the BioIT Alliance, headed by Don Rule and personally endorsed by Gates (see April 2006 Bio-IT World, p. 12). This group includes Applied Biosystems, Accelrys Software, Affymetrix, Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Digipede Technologies, Discovery Biosciences, Geospiza, Hewlett-Packard, InterKnowlogy, Scripps Research Institute, Sun Microsystems, and VizX Labs.

Now comes word of another interesting Microsoft initiative in the life sciences. Last July, Microsoft Research in Cambridge, U.K., convened a meeting in Venice to consider the future of science and computing over the next 15 years. That report — Towards 2020 Science — is a handsome document that would do justice to any self-respecting coffee table. The content is rich and provocative — albeit a more sober view of the near future than Ray Kurzweil’s startling predictions of the rapidly approaching “singularity” (see page 23).

The meeting organizers, Stephen Emmott and Stuart Rison, suggest that Towards 2020 Science is “the first [report] to articulate a comprehensive vision of science towards 2020, [particularly] the impact of the convergence of computer science and the other sciences.”

A major assertion in Towards 2020 Science is the fundamental transformation of computer science itself, from a mere tool to help scientists “do” science to a critical entity where computer science concepts, tools, and theorems are integrated into the very fabric of science. “Computer science is poised to become as fundamental to biology as mathematics has become to physics,” the report says. “There is growing awareness among biologists that to understand cells and cellular systems required viewing them as information processing systems.” An immediate challenge is that of “end-to-end scientific data management, from data acquisition and data integration, to data treatment, provenance, and persistence.”

The report also anticipates a transformation of the scientific communication paradigm, the educational challenges for tomorrow’s scientists (demanding literacy in computer science and mathematics), and the future of computing itself. “The next 14 years will see major activity in the codification of scientific knowledge,” the report states. Areas such artificial scientists, prediction machines, new software tools, and new types of communities are among those highlighted.

The authors highlight a number of global challenges that computer science can and must help address in the coming decades, including the biosphere, global epidemics, and the energy crisis. In biology, key needs are not merely in the realm of integrative drug discovery but also understanding the cell, the brain, and the immune system. The report concludes with a list of 10 recommendations, most of which demand the education of scientists, and a call for “governments to be bold about science and its role in the economy and society.” These include:

  • Rethink how we educate tomorrow’s scientists. The education of today’s children is a priority. Teaching of computing should be “more than just ‘IT’ classes and how to use PowerPoint. Make basic principles of computer science, such as abstraction and codification, a core part of the science curriculum”
  • Create new kinds of research institutes...“focused on ‘grand challenges’ rather than ‘grand disciplines’ ”
  • Develop innovative public-private partnerships to accelerate science-based innovation, and better mechanisms to create value from intellectual property

The authors hope their report generates debate, dissent, and ideas. You can contribute to that dialogue by downloading a copy from research.Microsoft.com and directing feedback to Microsoft’s Stephen Emmott (semmott@microsoft.com).

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