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Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences
Federal and private funding agencies should expand support for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and education centers. In particular,extramural funding should be provided to establish and maintain centerinfrastructure and research expenses. Initial (e.g., 5-year) salary supportfor investigators performing research that spans disciplines should also beincluded, with continuing salary support for faculty associated with thecenter provided by the host institution(s) or department(s). To supportthese centers, universities will need to implement multidepartment hiringpractices and tenure policies that support faculty working collaborativelywithin and across multiple disciplines, establish shared resources, and provide incentives for departments to promote multidepartmental research andcross-disciplinary teaching opportunities.
Many of these recommendations are not new, but instead resemble those rendered by previous committees about the need to break away from “stove piping”—narrowly focused and isolated funding programs—and to implement new ways for evaluating funding opportunities and prioritizing funding for the most promising research. These resemblances should be seen as a renewed acknowledgement by this committee that such changes remain important and continue to be necessary to take full advantage of the research opportunities at this interface.
As noted by President Obama in his remarks to the National Academy of Sciences in April 2009, change and convergence are key to fully meeting the challenges and opportunities at this intersection:
In biomedicine … we can harness the historic convergence between life sciences and physical sciences that’s underway today [by] undertaking public projects—in the spirit of the Human Genome Project—to create data and capabilities that fuel discoveries in tens of thousands of laboratories and identifying and overcoming scientific and bureaucratic barriers to rapidly translate scientific breakthroughs into diagnostics and therapeutics that serve patients.3
New cultures must be forged and scientists must grow as comfortable in them as they are in their existing subcultures. There must be funding for work in those new cultures that extends beyond existing-culture “stove pipes.” Most important, they must prepare the rising generation to mine new-culture opportunities without losing touch with scientists in the traditional disciplines or the principles of such disciplines. The future will be driven by progress at this intersection.