I spent the first 15 years of my professional life unwilling to recognize a difference between bioinformatics and computational biology. It was not because I didn’t think that there was or could be a difference, but because I thought the difference was not significant. I have changed my position on this. I now believe that they are quite different and worth distinguishing. For me,
Computational biology = the study of biology using computational techniques. The goal is to learn new biology, knowledge about living sytems. It is about science.
Bioinformatics = the creation of tools (algorithms, databases) that solve problems. The goal is to build useful tools that work on biological data. It is about engineering.
All this became important to me when I finally joined a bioengineering department, and I was forced to ask myself if I was a scientist or an engineer. I am both, and now am at peace.
When I build a method (usually as software, and with my staff, students, post-docs–I never unfortunately do it myself anymore), I am engaging in an engineering activity: I design it to have certain performance characteristics, I build it using best engineering practices, I validate that it performs as I intended, and I create it to solve not just a single problem, but a class of similar problems that all should be solvable with the software. I then write papers about the method, and these are engineering papers. This is bioinformatics.
When I use my method (or those of others) to answer a biological question, I am doing science. I am learning new biology. The criteria for success has little to do with the computational tools that I use, and is all about whether the new biology is true and has been validated appropriately and to the standards of evidence expected among the biological community. The papers that result report new biological knowledge and are science papers. This is computational biology.
As I look at my published work I have always tried to balance the publications in biological/medical journals and those in engineering/informatics journals. It is an aesthetic really, there is no reason why one should feel compelled to do this. However, it is useful to know when you are doing biology and when you are doing something else. I suppose someone can argue with the my use of the term “bioinformatics” as an engineering discipline. That’s fine–I’m open to a different term. But I would ask why bioinformatics isn’t good. I think computational biology is more solid–the ‘biology’ is clearly the noun and the ‘computational’ is clearly the adjective.