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Specifically, the panel has identified the following four options that could help to stimulate progress in the field:
Interdisciplinary collaborations could be encouraged by a new mode of research through which small numbers of scientists would come together to work on a specific problem, such as the ones identified in this report. This mechanism would encourage new collaborations while keeping their size small to help ensure accountability.
Consortia in biomolecular materials could be developed, i.e., groups of investigators that are focused on a specific theme or a specific instrumental capability. Such groups could involve scientists at a particular site such as a university campus or a government laboratory, or they could be consortia involving several sites. They would vary in size but would each have a well-defined focus: specific instruments, particular scientific problems, or a defined technological goal. Pre-existing collaborations with established track records of interdisciplinary activity should be favored in establishing these groups. Some of the groups could be built into existing structures such as the Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs), Science and Technology Centers (STCs), and government laboratories. Groups that have special facilities should be open to external scientists. Geographical dispersion could be a component in the selection criteria. Incorporation of the government laboratories into the groups should be strongly encouraged since the government laboratories house a broad spectrum of instruments, experience in instrument development, and relevant expertise in such areas as synchrotron radiation, neutrons, imaging (electron microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy, atomic field microscopy, and x-ray microscopy), and chemical and biological synthesis and characterization.
Academic programs could be established at universities to encourage curriculum development and training in biomolecular materials. These programs would bridge biology, materials science, and the physical sciences. The multidisciplinary character of biomolecular materials research, though in many ways a great strength, can be a barrier for students pursuing an education in the field. New academic programs and curriculum development could help to overcome this problem. It is important that students are trained in one of the disciplines in depth, however, obtaining interdisciplinary breadth during the research phase of their graduate careers.
One way to support such training could be the provision of special training grants like those that NIH has recently provided in areas related to biomaterials. Any such grants should include requirements for additional courses as well as for a program of research. The panel believes that the effectiveness of such a grant program would be enhanced if institutions receiving grants were encouraged to strengthen their ties with government and industrial laboratories. For example, they could make arrangements for outside laboratories to provide summer jobs for their graduate students, and the participating government and industrial researchers could host visitor programs and serve as guest lecturers at the universities receiving the grants.
A national Biomolecular Materials Institute (BMI) could be established, located at a university or a government laboratory or another site with an appropriate intellectual environment. Like options 1 and 2 above, this option is motivated by the panel's consensus that interdisciplinary collaboration requires special support and encouragement. For example, in the study of many aspects of biomolecular materials, such as those described above for molecular machines, close interaction between researchers is both difficult and very important. In addition, a national institute would broaden access to instruments and research facilities, facilitate contacts between the academic community and private industry, and enhance the visibility of the field in a way that would encourage the creation of university programs in biomolecular materials research and education.
A national BMI would act as an umbrella organization for the field. It would have four main tasks: