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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines 6 Conclusions and Recommendations Over a decade ago, the National Research Council published an optimistic report assessing the field of biomolecular materials.1 This committee’s survey of biomolecular materials and processes has led to the conclusion that the situation today is qualitatively different from that which existed a decade or even 5 years ago. It is an especially exciting time at the intersection of the physical, materials, and biological sciences. New ways to measure, manipulate, and compute properties of biological systems are making it possible to learn the principles that govern their function. When coupled with the advances that occurred in hard and soft condensed matter research, this knowledge of principles offers the real possibility of creating materials that can perform diverse functions with biomimetic precision. These materials, in turn, will impact technologies that will further our nation’s progress in areas such as energy independence, therapeutics and diagnostic tools, and devices for sensing biological and chemical threats. By pursuing the research outlined in this report, scientists are expected to gain a dramatically better understanding of basic principles underlying the complex emergent behavior of biological systems. It will be difficult to realize this promise, however, if steps are not taken to evolve the infrastructure and organizations that support research and education in this field. It is the committee’s view that the following issues demand immediate attention. 1 NRC, Biomolecular Self-Assembling Materials: Scientific and Technological Frontiers, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996.
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines SUPPORTING INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH Fundamental new insights into how biological systems function and how bioinspired materials and processes can be created require contributions from different disciplines. Such interdisciplinary research efforts are growing organically in the scientific community at a fast pace and will undoubtedly lead to important advances. Several Nobel prizes (many to European scientists) have been awarded for work at the crossroads of these disciplines. However, the U.S. research community has not yet developed a culture that adequately supports interdisciplinary science. Recommendation 1: The Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other relevant departments and agencies should jointly sponsor programs of innovative research at the intersection of different disciplines. Initiatives of this type will provide incentives for universities to work across traditional departmental boundaries. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should take the lead in coordinating such programs. Currently, no federal agency has ownership of research at the intersection of disciplines. For example, NSF and DOE do not support research that impacts mitigation of disease, which is viewed as the purview of the NIH. At the same time, the NIH often looks somewhat warily at research that includes a strong component rooted in the physical sciences. This situation makes it difficult to advance some of the most promising research efforts at the crossroads of disciplines. Some important efforts have been made by individual agencies (for example, the NIH Roadmap Initiative2), but these efforts are necessarily small because resources for the fields traditionally supported by a particular agency are shrinking. A comprehensive plan that involves the main federal agencies and avoids budgetary duplication is required. The committee recommends that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) take the lead here, because it can work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the federal funding agencies to maximize taxpayer investment in research at the crossroads of disciplines—a type of research that the committee believes is critically important. 2 More information on the NIH Roadmap Initiative is available at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/. Last accessed March 27, 2008.
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines DEVELOPING AND EVALUATING PROGRAMS FOR INTERDISCIPLINARY EDUCATION The U.S. higher education system has been dominant in the world for over eight decades. An important reason is that education and research are inextricably intertwined at U.S. universities. Interdisciplinary research should be accompanied now by the development of educational programs that train engineers and scientists who are easily able to cross disciplinary boundaries. Such programs are important because success in fundamental interdisciplinary research and its translation into commercial products will not be possible without such a pool of scientists and engineers. A knowledge-based economy will be important for the future in the United States, and interdisciplinary education will be one of the pillars supporting this enterprise. Recommendation 2: University physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, mathematics, and engineering departments and medical schools should jointly examine their curricula, identifying ways to prepare scientists and engineers for research at the intersection of the physical sciences, engineering, and the life sciences. The educational programs being created should be evaluated from a wide range of viewpoints, including input from leaders in industry and at the national laboratories. Efforts to educate students on topics in multiple disciplines are currently under way, and they are based on disparate philosophies. One extreme is to have a discipline-free education that exposes a student to a wide variety of subjects that are of current societal relevance and of interest to that student. This approach could produce graduates who have no in-depth knowledge of any particular area of science or engineering. Such a deficiency could be problematic since knowing how to learn a topic in detail will allow us to one day learn another topic in depth. At the other extreme is an in-depth education in a traditional discipline, but with an emphasis on exposure to other fields of inquiry. For example, some universities are experimenting with requiring a secondary major. This necessarily means fewer courses in the primary major, which impedes the design of a curriculum that provides both depth in one field and adequate exposure in others. Another recent development is the emergence of educational units (for example, biological engineering departments) that aim to bring together parts of other disciplines. Yet other programs are developing courses based on case studies. Issues related to the balance between breadth and depth of knowledge acquired by students are pertinent for these models as well. It is too early to assess the strengths and weaknesses of these different models, but planning for such assessments should be initiated soon. An important quality
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines of the evaluation process is that it should be continual, and an important component would be direct input from outside the universities. Industry input is crucial because that sector plays such an integral role in this field, and the need to prepare graduates who can step into industrial jobs is so critical. Developing and evaluating interdisciplinary education models is essential for achieving the leadership goals of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, Public Law No. 110-69.3 It will also be important to continue to develop short, but intense, courses to train physical scientists in the methods and principles of the biological sciences and to train biologists in the tools and approaches of the physical and engineering sciences. A few successful programs of this type are available (at for example, Woods Hole, the California Institute of Technology, and Cold Spring Harbor), but as interdisciplinary research flourishes, more such programs will be required. There is a pressing need for courses that communicate fundamental physicochemical concepts to biologists using the mathematical knowledge common to that community. Such courses would facilitate meaningful dialogue between biologists and physical scientists and engineers. Recommendation 3: DOE, NIH, NSF, and other relevant departments and agencies should support the development of 1- or 2-week summer courses to train physical scientists and engineers in the tools and concepts of biology and medicine and, conversely, biologists in the tools and concepts of the physical sciences. Special attention should be given to finding ways of communicating fundamental physicochemical concepts to biologists using the mathematical knowledge common to the biology community. Such summer courses would help bridge the physical and life sciences communities, allowing them to exploit research opportunities at the intersection of the fields. Federal funding agencies should make available resources to support and encourage the universities and individuals who wish to develop such courses. Similarly, real incentives need to be provided for the writing of textbooks for such courses. A particularly attractive model would be a book co-written by individuals who were trained in disparate fields but are working in the same interdisciplinary research field. The current academic system does not provide enough reward for writing such a badly needed book. 3 A fact sheet on the America COMPETES Act is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/08/20070809-6.html. Last accessed March 27, 2008.
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines EMPHASIZING BOTH FUNDAMENTAL AND APPLIED SCIENCES Research in biomolecular materials and processes will impact society and technology in the ways described in Chapters 2 through 5 of this report. As such, both fundamental and applied research should be emphasized. Recommendation 4: DOE, NIH, NSF, and other relevant departments and agencies should collaborate to link fundamental research with commercial applications. While it is imperative to recognize and exploit the connections between fundamental advances and opportunities to transition them into practice, curiosity-driven fundamental research on outstanding unsolved questions should be encouraged, because it could lead to unforeseen technological advances. The committee especially emphasizes the importance of fundamental research. In recent years, the connections between fundamental and applied research have been encouraged, and this trend should continue. But fundamental research in the physical sciences has not been supported adequately. Yet, as described in Chapters 2 through 5 of this report, some fundamentally new advances are required (for example, understanding materials far from equilibrium) which are expected to elucidate important basic questions pertinent to biological function and bioinspired materials. This knowledge could provide the United States with the capability of developing revolutionary new technologies. It is important to emphasize that the recommendation for increased support of the basic sciences does not imply there should be a lesser emphasis on applications—basic and applied research are two sides of the same coin. The United States cannot afford to lag behind countries in Europe and Asia in applied research, and it can aim to continue to be the singular leader in paradigm-changing fundamental research. Other nations are increasing investments in both these categories. DEVELOPING AND EVALUATING NATIONAL FACILITIES BASED ON MIDRANGE INSTRUMENTS National instrumentation facilities have greatly aided the scientific enterprise in the United States. In the past, most such facilities were built around a single, large centralized resource (for example, a synchrotron light source or a nuclear reactor that produces neutrons). Interdisciplinary research in biomolecular materials and processes calls for diverse instrumentation not usually available in a single laboratory. Interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers with complementary expertise is one solution to this problem. Some universities and research centers are building private facilities that house instrumentation shared by the local com-
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines munity of researchers. But many researchers have not had access to such facilities. Now, however, national facilities that house clusters of small to midrange instrumentation and associated human expertise are beginning to provide this access. Recommendation 5: DOE should continue to evaluate the effectiveness of recently created facilities to provide access to midrange instrumentation and computational facilities for the advancement of interdisciplinary research in nanoscience and technology. Based on what is learned from this evaluation, analogous, but distinct, centers could be created to facilitate research in biomolecular materials and processes. Careful evaluation of the successes and failures of recently created facilities at DOE laboratories (for example, the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) will be important for gauging the effectiveness of this model. This evaluation should address questions that include whether the facility is effective in aiding research across the country (rather than just the local area), and whether universities that otherwise lack access to such facilities are benefiting from them.