Life Sciences Spark IEEE Interest

Moshe Kam
IEEE President and CEO

Reprinted from The Institute (print edition) 07 March 2011, President’s Column

I recently spent time browsing the IEEE publication collection and was delighted to see how many new areas of interest IEEE is pursuing. We have certainly come a long way since we defined ourselves in 1963, as “directed toward the advancement of the theory and practice of electrical engineering, electronics, radio and the allied branches of engineering, and the related arts and sciences.” While IEEE certainly continues to disseminate a lot of new and exciting work in traditional areas—including radio—we also publish many journals in new and divergent areas. Two prominent examples are IEEE Transactions on NanoBioscience and IEEE Transactions on Autonomous Mental Development.

IEEE also runs conferences on new and nontraditional subjects such as biosignals and biorobotics and conducts joint activities with associations of health-care providers and physicians. These activities can be reasoned to be part of “the related arts and sciences” in our self-description, but the truth of the matter is that they are not. In actuality, we have widened IEEE’s fields of interest to include new areas in computing, life sciences, even psychology and linguistics (there are more than 6000 IEEE articles with “linguistics” in the title). IEEE in 2011 is quite literally not your grandfather’s IEEE anymore.

THE QUIET REVOLUTION

One of the most interesting and important developments in recent years has been our increased focus on the life sciences and their applications. IEEE now regularly publishes eight refereed publications in this area and organizes conferences on subjects such as bioinformatics and clinical applications of medical image analysis. You can find more than 900 articles in our archives on tissue engineering alone, as well as hundreds of articles on regenerative medicine, cell engineering, and stem cells.

In spite of our growing interest in life sciences, IEEE is not yet known as a major player in this burgeoning field. While our prominence in areas such as wireless communications and electric power standards is widely recognized, IEEE still has a long way to go before biologists working on genomics or biomedical researchers working on an artificial pancreas would consider our organization their professional home (or at least their second professional home). This situation should worry us; the intersection between our traditional fields—electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer 
science—and the life sciences is “hot.” If we fail to capture this growing interest area, others will fill the gap and we will lose a major opportunity to maintain our leadership in advanced technology. Relying on the fields that made IEEE the leader in the second half of the 20th century will not by itself make IEEE the leader in the 21st.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Making serious forays into the life sciences means that, in addition to the ongoing activities by current members and authors, we should invite researchers, developers, and academics from other relevant disciplines outside of engineering to join IEEE. This poses a challenge due to the strong engineering reputation of IEEE. We faced a similar dilemma when we started inviting computing professionals and information technologists into IEEE. At the time, some suggested that we abandon the use of “engineering” in our name, adopt a more general title, or use “IEEE” without ever spelling out the acronym. However, 75 percent of our members have at least one engineering degree, and we have many electrical and computer engineers among us. They are justifiably proud of IEEE’s engineering heritage. Alienating them, our current core, in order to gain members elsewhere is unacceptable.

OUR ACTIONS

In 2010 IEEE formed a working group on life sciences led by Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, a professor of systems biology science at the University of Texas at Dallas. So far, the group has worked to create a portal where all IEEE activities in life sciences—related areas can be accessed. The portal is due to be released in the second quarter. In 2011 we will also augment this group with volunteers from IEEE societies that are active in the life sciences. We will seek a clearer mission statement for IEEE’s life sciences activities, identifying specific areas where IEEE can make the most useful and highest–quality contributions in the next decade. We will then give these areas maximum visibility and support.

YOUR ADVICE IS WELCOME

If the role of IEEE in the life sciences is of interest to you, please share your thoughts and advice with me.