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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 otherrelevant departments and agencies should jointly sponsor programs ofinnovative research at the intersection of different disciplines. Initiatives ofthis type will provide incentives for universities to work across traditionaldepartmental 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.