History of ISCB

ISCB Expands Horizons

Computational biology—the unique mix of molecular biology and computer science—has come of age in recent years, earning status as a scientific discipline in its own right. The development of the field and the high demand for qualified professionals have given rise to the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB), an organization dedicated to the advancement of scientific understanding of living systems through computation.

Since its founding in 1997, the Society has grown to nearly 2000 members from over 50 countries and looks to sustain strong membership growth in the near future. Current ISCB President Michael Gribskov has emphasized the expansion of the Society on a global scale, both increasing international membership and creating alliances with regional bioinformatics organizations worldwide.

“In the end, it is all about the science. The ISCB represents the opportunity for everyone involved in computational biology, throughout the world, to speak with a united voice and be heard,” Gribskov said. “ISCB is and should be a forum for the best scientific meetings and publications.”

Today, the intersection of computers and biology is fundamental, and many universities offer doctorates in bioinformatics and computational science, with some even starting to offer bioinformatics undergraduate degrees. However, research into elemental problems such as sequence analysis didn’t become common until the mid-eighties. In 1990, Temple Smith, considered a pioneer in computational biology, marked the state of the field in an article on the history of genetic databases in Genomics. "There has been slow progress in exploiting the wealth of computer science and database management expertise available outside the biological community," he wrote.

The ISCB founder Larry Hunter recalls what it was like fifteen years ago to be one of the few people with an interest in applying a computational approach to biological investigation. He says, "It was really hard to find people who did this work in either computer science or molecular biology. No one cared about bioinformatics or had any idea of what it was or how to find people who did it."

When researchers with crossover interests did encounter one another at conferences such as the 1990 and 1991 Spring Symposia on Artificial Intelligence and Molecular Biology, the gap between the disciplines was dramatic. "There was a lot of mutual education that went on back then—the biologists didn’t understand that much about computer science and the computer scientists didn't understand that much about biology," Hunter says. "The biologists thought that building a data warehouse was an overwhelming problem and the computer scientists would look at the problem and say, ‘This is no big deal, we can make a database that can hold this.’ Computer scientists would give talks about how to assemble sequence and the biologists would stand up and say, ‘Oh no! You're missing the hard part altogether.’"

Hunter, then a programmer at the US National Library of Medicine, had generated a popular database of researchers interested in artificial intelligence and molecular biology from research papers and conference mailing lists. In 1992, he invited the researchers listed in his database to a joint NLM meeting with the National Science Foundation on the future of what was then termed artificial intelligence in molecular biology. The following year, the meeting evolved into the first Intelligent Systems in Molecular Biology (ISMB) conference, held in Washington DC.


Since 1993, members of what would become the Society’s founding board of directors had discussed the formation of a formal group related to the emerging discipline of computers in biological science. But, at the time no one knew what such an organization would do. Some felt that a society would help to legitimize the new field. Others emphasized the need for a new journal. When the Society adopted Bioinformatics as its official journal in 1998, with Chris Sander as executive editor, the publication was still frequently referred to by its original name, Computer Applications in the Biosciences (a.k.a. CABios). The journal was initially geared towards software development rather than scientific discoveries and new methods, and the name change in 1995 was a first effort to redirect focus toward specific bioinformatics research results.


At the ISMB 1996 in St. Louis, Missouri, a union of all of the previous years’ conference steering committees discussed the possibility of forming a special interest group affiliated with an existing society such as the Association for Computing Machinery or the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The committee members concluded that the interdisciplinary nature of computational biology demanded a separate organization with balanced links to the societies of all participating disciplines, and encouraged the creation of the new and independent organization. In their first order of business they elected Hunter as president, Chris Rawlings at SmithKline Beecham as vice-president, Terry Gaasterland at the University of Chicago as secretary, and Rick Lathrop at the University of California at Irvine as treasurer. Most of the other steering committee members agreed to serve as the inaugural board of directors.

Another driving force in the formation of the Society was the need to house the funds for the ISMB conference. Money from the ISMB had been moved each year from host institution to host institution and became enough of a logistical burden to drive Hunter to establish a nonprofit corporation.

In an email to the board discussing the administrative details, Hunter proposed the Society’s new name and pronunciation of its acronym, the "Society for Computational Biology," abbreviated SCB, which could be pronounced "scob" or "ess cee bee". With the addition of the word “International” to the society name in recognition of the nature of its intended membership, the pronunciation turned out to be "eye ess cee bee" or ISCB. Thus a Society was born.

The Society’s original administrative structure was modeled on a combination of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the American Association for Anatomists. Although it was the first time he’d started a scientific society, Hunter had previously been involved in the founding of another nonprofit, Vietnam Generation, Inc., so he was prepared for the legal technicalities of establishing a nonprofit organization.

However, despite having the legal work and tax papers in order, Hunter found that the banks of Maryland were wary of a scientist bearing a $30,000 check, a letter from the IRS granting the Society provisional non-profit status, and an official address that turned out to be Hunter’s cabin in the woods along the Potomac River. After wandering from bank to bank in Bethesda, searching for an institution that would allow him to open an account, "Eventually, we found a bank that didn't ask too many questions and would accept a deposit based on a driver’s license," says Hunter. "That was the beginning."

Although a press release announcing the new organization wasn’t sent out until 1998, the Society was legally incorporated in early 1997. At that year’s ISMB, held in Halkidiki, Greece, the board met for a marathon session to decide the official direction and mission of the young organization. They gathered for their annual meeting at a restaurant that had set up tables on the beach. Legend holds that at some point between dinner and an early morning boat ride back to their hotel, the group, fortified by Greek wine, agreed on the ISCB’s current mission statement, "The International Society for Computational Biology is dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of living systems through computation; our emphasis is on the role of computing and informatics in advancing molecular biology." The emphasis on molecular biology has since been removed from the mission statement in recognition of the broad range of biology now served through computation, but the core of the original mission statement still serves as the driving force behind all Society activities.


Building Computational Community
Before the ISCB was officially founded, the board recognized a Society had the duty to serve all researchers with an interest in using computational techniques to investigate problems of a biological nature. At the time, computational biology was divided by groups from opposite ends of computer science, embodied in the separate conferences each attended. ISMB grew from the world of artificial intelligence while its alter ego, the International Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology (RECOMB), descended from a heritage of formal studies in theoretical and algorithmic computational biology. The groups had separate funding, sponsors, and attitudes.


As Hunter puts it, "There used to be a certain amount of mutual disdain, intellectually. The RECOMB community thought ISMB folks weren't serious. They thought they were doing the rigorous, mathematical science, while ISMB people were noodling around doing heuristic this-and-that. On the other side, ISMB folks thought, 'Those RECOMB people do nothing but prove theorems and it'll never be any use to actual biologists. We're the ones actually making a difference in moving the biological science forward.' There was palpable tension."

The board felt the community of researchers was too small to be split up into separate groups and emphasized the importance of diversity within the community. In 1996, the speaker for the ISMB steering group, David States, now at the University of Michigan, contacted prominent researchers from the RECOMB side about the impending formation of the ISCB and invited them to join the board. He explained in an email to the potential members, "We feel that an organized international society could assist the entire field in many ways, and that such a society should represent as broadly as possible the diverse interests and approaches of our multi-disciplinary community."

In the past few years, the opposing ends of the field have begun to converge, particularly with new programs in graduate and postdoctoral training encompassing all aspects of computational biology. Now it is common for researchers to attend both conferences, and many also attend the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing (PSB), which is academically positioned between the two. The board has made the effort to maintain its scientific diversity as a priority, cross-promoting ISMB, RECOMB, and PSB, as well as the European Conference on Computational Biology (ECCB), which was a welcome addition in 2002 to the annual international bioinformatics conference calendar. For many years ISCB has negotiated member discounts to each of these related conferences, and offered travel fellowships to student members as well.


New Directions
After four one-year terms, including a four-month break from September 1997 until January 1998, when Chris Rawlings at SmithKline Beecham served as acting president, Hunter turned over the helm and in 2000 the board elected Russ Altman at Stanford as the second president. Altman’s track record included salvaging the 1994 ISMB conference when it unexpectedly wound up moving from Seattle to Palo Alto and he campaigned with a two-sentence platform, "We need more members. Without members, it’s a waste of time." Altman noted his fortuitous timing saying, "With the field taking off, I barely had to do anything to have a lot of people join. The members found us." Nevertheless, he led an international campaign for new members that included sending letters to lab directors worldwide, and the membership more than doubled in less than a year and a half. In 2004 the Society reached a membership high of 1924 members from 51 countries, including 761 students and post doctoral members.


During Altman’s tenure, the board instituted the initial legal and administrative scaffolding of the Society. The first part time administrator, Janice Cole was hired at University of Missouri, St. Louis, while David States was serving as Treasurer in 1997. Stanley Jacob at Stanford University succeeded Cole in 2000. In March of 2002, the Society officers were moved to the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego, and BJ Morrison McKay was hired as the Society’s first full-time administrator/executive officer.

Altman also developed a mechanism for the election of officers rather than having the board making the appointments. "Rank and file should choose the leadership," he said. The members held the first election in 2001, with former ISCB secretary Phil Bourne of the University of California, San Diego and the San Diego Supercomputer Center assuming the presidency in January 2002. In transferring responsibility to his successor, Altman remarked that Bourne now has the challenge of figuring out what to do with the rapidly expanding society. “Phil is the perfect next president. He’s going to now take the basic building blocks and push them in new directions.”

Immediately Bourne fortified the administration and established a new home for the Society in San Diego. He supported the formation of a regional affiliates outreach program, as well as development of the Society’s special interest groups. "These programs need to be enacted, since this is where the society could have a major impact in promoting the society in less scientifically developed regions and in new areas of science," Bourne proclaimed.

According to Bourne, the Society was at a point in its development when it needed to establish itself as a body that represented the collective voice of a diverse group of scientists that can have a greater international impact on scientific, societal and governmental issues. That voice would advance the professionalism of the field and give it credibility on par with other major scientific societies.

2004 saw major changes in the ISCB’s relationship with the journal Bioinformatics, with the Society moving to an option subscription plan for members since many of them worked and studied at institutions that held institutional subscriptions. The change allowed the Society to retain more money for Society projects rather than allocating it toward redundant subscriptions.

Then, in 2005, after several years of discussion on the nature of the “official” society journal, and the advent of open access publishing, the ISCB announced a partnership with the Public Library of Science in the launch of a new open access journal, PLoS Computational Biology. Past president/past publications committee chair, Phil Bourne, would serve as editor-in-chief of the new publication, which emphasizes computational studies with real biological outcomes that can be appreciated by experimentalists. The first issue of the new journal coincided with the opening day of ISMB 2005, held in Detroit, Michigan.


Global Growth
The 2002 election of Michael Gribskov as the fourth president coincided with a period of unprecedented international expansion for the ISCB, mirroring the growth of computational biology worldwide. In taking the helm from Bourne in January 2003, Gribskov wrote, “We face great challenges in building a truly international society—one that brings together scientists from around the world, not just from the U.S. and Europe.”


Earlier that year ISCB Vice President Anna Tramontano had initiated the Affiliated Regional Groups program to promote relationship building among bioinformatics groups worldwide. The program provides a structure for mutual recognition and exchange between the ISCB and other bioinformatics groups, such as the cross-promotion of news and events. Between 2003 and 2005, the number of ISCB Affiliated Regional groups more than doubled, from 13 affiliates to 30 groups, many in developing countries.

The ISCB further extended its participation in conferences around the globe. In the fall of 2002 the first European Conference on Computational Biology (ECCB) was held in Saarbrücken, Germany, drawing 459 attendees from 30 countries, including heavy participation by ISCB members and leadership. ISMB 2003 was held in Brisbane, Australia—the first time the meeting had been held outside North America or Europe. In 2004 ISMB, ECCB and Genes, Proteins and Computers VIII (GPCVIII) partnered for a joint conference in Glasgow, Scotland. ISMB/ECCB 2004 proved to be the largest bioinformatics conference ever held at that time, and the success of the partnership has set the stage for the next ISMB/ECCB to be held in Vienna, Austria, in 2007.

The ISCB also hosted a highly successful pilot regional conference in the US to gauge interest in smaller, localized meetings. In December 2003, the Rocky Mountain Regional Bioinformatics conference, “Rocky 1,” was launched in Aspen, Colorado. Approximately 70 attendees, mostly from Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Alberta, presented short talks and posters. A survey taken after the conference showed that 80% of respondents expected new collaborations to arise from the meeting, and 90% would attend next year if the meeting were held again. Rocky’06 is well underway as the fourth annual meeting in this region, and the doors have been thrown open to attract researchers from across the US and beyond to participate in this dynamic conference.

On the public affairs and policy front, ISCB joined with 21 other scientific organizations by becoming a member society of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an organization comprised of 21 societies with more than 60,000 members. According to Barbara Bryant, the ISCB Secretary at the time, the ISCB Board had been interested in a number of public policy issues, including open source software, open access to scientific journals, government funding for bioinformatics, and better functioning of grant review bodies. The ISCB was particularly interested in joining with groups that would give the Society greater access to government—to have its voice heard more effectively, to learn more about how things work, and to track current issues of relevance to ISCB members. In December of 2002, the FASEB Board of Directors unanimously approved ISCB’s application for associate membership in their organization, and Bryant was appointed as the ISCB representative to the FASEB Board of Directors. “This is a perfect match and we really look forward to working with the ISCB folks,” said FASEB’s Executive Director at the time, Sidney Golub.

FASEB has been around since 1912, and the FASEB Office of Public Affairs has a longstanding history of influence over policy issues and funding decisions on Capitol Hill. As the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States, FASEB is recognized among American lawmakers as the organization to consult and invite to meetings about funding and policy issues impacting the biomedical and life sciences. As a member society of FASEB, the ISCB now shares a voice in this important political arena. Currently FASEB is the only known organization of its kind, but as other countries or world regions develop similar institutions the ISCB will eagerly participate to extend the public policy and funding representation of computational biologists around the world.

The ISCB has also given focus to increasing student membership and involvement. In late 2003, Manuel Corpas Lopez, a bioinformatics student at the University of Manchester, put forth a proposal to the board of directors to form an official ISCB Student Council (SC) to address issues of importance to student and postdoctoral researchers. The SC was welcomed as an official segment of the ISCB at the ISMB/ECCB 2004 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and inaugural SC members immediately began organizing an introductory meeting, social events, and member recruitment campaign. Since that time the SC has held student-specific events at ISMB conferences and a started a successful Student Council Symposium series, which was unveiled at ECCB 2005 in Madrid, Spain, with nearly 100 participants and a program of invited keynote speakers and peer reviewed presentations selected from abstract submissions.

In 2003, with an eye turned toward the long-term financial stability of the ISCB, the Society’s leadership developed a formal strategic plan to focus the ISCB’s mission and vision, and to ensure the maintenance of the ISCB as a fiscally sound professional society. The new plan (available at the ISCB website) includes the goals of helping to set the priorities of the Society’s staff and leadership activities, expands the ISCB’s circle of influence as an organized body on behalf of its science, and outlines a plan to diversify revenues beyond membership dues and the annual ISMB conference. The Board of Directors approved the three year plan at their annual meeting in 2003.

"The plan will help keep us focused on strategic priorities so the ISCB can continue to grow as an international organization and enable our members to network, build collaborations and affiliations, stay informed of advances and opportunities in the field, and share in a common voice toward advancing the worldwide understanding of computational biology," said President Gribskov.

Looking Ahead

As the initial strategic plan expires in 2006, and president-elect Burkhard Rost of Columbia University in New York gears up to become the fifth president of the ISCB in January 2007, many exciting developments and much continued growth are sure to lie ahead. In his candidate statement, Rost cited the major issues facing the ISCB as being: 1) consolidation, financially and scientifically; 2) outreach to new scientific sub disciplines (neurobiology/imaging/systems biology); 3) stronger link to experimental biology; and 4) redefinition of ISMB as the major activity of the society. He hopes to address these issues, “Constructively; with new ideas, less bureaucracy, new faces + better ability to integrate old ones.” May we all serve as participants in further strengthening the constituencies served by the society, and therefore the field of bioinformatics as a whole.

This history was written by Cassie Ferguson of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, with edits and updates provided by BJ Morrison McKay, past ISCB executive officer (2001 - 2012).


Sander, C. (2002) The journal Bioinformatics, key medium for computational biology. Bioinformatics, 18(N1), 1-2.
Smith, T.F. (1990) The history of the genetic sequence databases. Genomics, V6(N4), 701-707.
Waterman, M.S. (1990) Genomic sequence databases. Genomics, V6(N4), 700-701.