Can software save us from recession?
Picture the analytical chemist, using a laboratory information management system (LIMS) to check process quality control. Or an engineer using maths software to calculate the flow of air over a wing or a new design of motorcar. Or the life scientist mining heaps of data in an effort to pin down cause and effect among many potential variables. For each of them, the task in hand is pre-occupation enough, their focus has to be narrow and specific or else they risk missing some vital element that could have profound consequences later: an entire batch of output having to be scrapped; a defective and dangerous design; a new drug with unexpected side-effects.
Consider now, the rise in value of world's stock markets on the tide of optimism following the end of the war in Iraq. Ending uncertainty is always good for share prices and for the economy generally. But the business columns of the newspapers are filled with new anxieties: that the US Government is pursuing a policy of tacit devaluation of the dollar. This will counteract economic depression at home, but risks bringing deflation to the countries of the Euro-zone, especially Germany.
These appear to be two separate and disjunct universes. The world of science, with its emphasis on numerical hard facts and where statements have to be backed up with empirical evidence, seems to stand in opposition to that of economics and the stock market, where perception is often reality and mere sentiment can hold sway.
But they are connected. Science does not respect national frontiers and there can be few activities more international than the provision of goods and services relating to the scientific applications of computing. The makers of that LIMS system know this only too well. Why else would they put in so much effort to ensure that the same software is available in many different languages? Maths and datamining packages are sold around the world.
In recent times, there has been a different aspect in which the international connection of scientific computing has come to the fore. Companies that once sold one-off sets of software are now shaping up to provide 'enterprise-wide' editions. For some, indeed, this is not a particularly new departure: as Bob Hillhouse of LabWare stresses in the article on this website, this has always been at the heart of his company's strategy. The trend is visible in the approach of companies like Accelrys, the biotechnology and chemistry software company, that is very much focused on an enterprise-wide approach. Mathematics software too is beginning to adopt this trend, for example with the launch of the enterprise edition of Mathcad late last year.
If scientific computing cannot thus be divorced from geopolitical and global economic developments, should we be concerned by the gloom in the financial pages of the press? At first sight, fears of recession should give us all pause. But there was another report on those same pages - that the sector showing the healthiest growth in share value over the past six months in the UK stock market was technology investment trusts.
It could just be that that new LIMS system, that maths software package, and that datamining software, could be the vehicles that pull us out of the threatened recession. Now there would be something to think about during a quiet time in the lab.
Dr Tom Wilkie