Theoretical biology: training and jobs

Theoretical Biology both analyses the process of formulation of theories and formulates theories itself. These theories are of a general and fundamental nature. Theoretical Biology is the logical counterpart of Experimental Biology, a situation that is well known from physics. Both disciplines are extremes of the empirical cycle, where data (observations) are collected and evaluated in hypotheses about cause and effect; predictions for new situations are made on the basis of these hypotheses, and data are collected to test and improve the hypotheses. The need for Theoretical Biology increases with the distance (the number of evaluation steps) between data and hypotheses. This happens when hypotheses become more abstract and/or general, and when large and diverse sets of data are involved.

Many people oppose fundamental research with applied research. Within this distinction, Theoretical Biology is mostly associated with fundamental research. This opposition is not correct, however. Applied research is research that can be applied directly in society; this does not exclude the possibility that it can be fundamental at the same time. One can even question the value of applied research that is not fundamental. Some research results cannot be applied immediately; the applicability of this research may well reveal itself later.

Biological science is highly relevant for all kinds on societal problems, like environmental pollution, health care, agriculture, fisheries and industrial innovation. These problems all require a quantitative treatment. Biology thus has to evolve from a qualitative science into a quantitative one. Theoretical biology is well suited to promote this evolution, as its work involves the application of mathematics (modelling, statistics) and computational sciences. In addition to mathematical skills, the art of modelling requires methodological skills, to judge consistency and compromise between partly conflicting modelling criteria, such as simplism, realism and generalism.

The application of mathematics in biology is rapidly gaining ground. To date, most scientific journals require a sound statistical evaluation of experimental results. Biology problems are always complex, with many factors involved in any particular phenomenon; only models can help to evaluate how these factors interact. (As an illustration outside biology: the relatively straightforward problem of weather forecasting is nowadays fully done on the basis of models.) The use of models to evaluate different scenarios is rapidly expanding. Governmental institutions are therefore moving into the direction of developing models for management purposes. The optimization of biological production processes, such as in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, is also done on the basis of models. This is why it is important to include some Theoretical Biology courses in any biological training programme.

A specialisation in Theoretical Biology is a choice for generalism, as a complement to specialised training programs. Scientific progress requires advanced forms of specialisation, but this comes with the handicap that it becomes progressively more difficult to learn from other specialisations. This is why modern research is multi-disciplinary, where specialists collaborate with generalists, who coordinate activities and promote exchange among specialists. Each specialisation uses its own concepts, and even its own `language'. Fruitful exchange is only possible if shared knowledge is substantial. Specialists in theoretical biology are well trained for the task to transfer specialised knowledge from one specialisation to another. Their own expertise on applied mathematics and methodology allows theoretical biologists to help specialists in the evaluation of their results.

The types of jobs for persons with a training in theoretical biology directly relate to their function in research, as indicated above. Such research jobs can be found in research institutions (fundamental and applied), industries, engineering bureaus, universities. Because of the general background, the training is also very suitable for teaching in high schools, universities and other education institutions that prepare for jobs in research.

The discipline of theoretical biology is developing rapidly, and the Netherlands has a strong position in this field; See the site of the Dutch Society for Theoretical Biology (NVTB).