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(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:
To examine research directions through workshops, meetings, and studies, giving particular attention to proposed novel initiatives;
To encourage interdisciplinary collaborations by bringing together scientists and engineers from different backgrounds, e.g., different disciplines or affiliations;
To provide instrumental facilities that would encourage interactions between experimental groups; and
To provide industry with a single contact point for obtaining information about biomolecular research activities and for obtaining assistance in making connections with those activities.
Structurally, the BMI might resemble the NSF-sponsored Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. For example, it would have quasi-independent status and be overseen by a broad-based advisory board. It would consist of a small cadre of permanent scientists, plus staff commensurate with the above-listed tasks, such as experts to assist visiting scientists in using the instruments and laboratories. Funding should if possible be provided in at least five-year increments, either by a single agency or preferably by a consortium of agencies such as NSF, NIH, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense. Funding should also include substantial industrial support if at all possible, probably at about the 25% level.
Although this option may be difficult to achieve in the current funding environment, the panel believes it is an important goal for the future.