In 2003, many believed that the discoveries that would lead to solving the world’s most pressing problems would be based on interdisciplinary and cross-professional research. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was a pioneering program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine—supported by a 15-year, $40 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation—to catalyze a broad-based increase in interdisciplinary inquiry.
The overarching purpose of the Futures Initiative was to advance the capacity of the research enterprise to address society’s greatest challenges. A fundamental assumption was that the most powerful means to advance interdisciplinary research would be to invest in people—the human capital of the research enterprise—by identifying the best talent and providing them with opportunities to explore the horizons of knowledge together. The initiative was intended to be a broad, national stimulus of creative inquiry that would enhance the spirit of collaboration and problem solving among accomplished and emerging research talent and their institutions. Several thousand high potential, early career researchers would participate in the program. As future leaders in universities and industrial laboratories they would organize and guide the research of the future and potentially encourage institutions to invent structures and strategies to advance joint science, engineering, and medical research in the service of improving the human condition.
The Futures Initiative used a combination of conferences, grants, and awards to kindle collaboration and research. It harnessed the intellectual
and creative capacity of the brightest minds from diverse backgrounds who attended an annual “think-tank” style conference to address real-world challenges. Seed grants awarded to conference participants enabled further pursuit of bold, new ideas generated at the conference that were not yet ready to compete for other funding. Similar to start-up capital in the business world, NAKFI considered it venture science. As a separate but related part of the program, the National Academies’ Communication Awards were designed to recognize, promote, and encourage effective communication of science, engineering, and medicine beyond the scientific community.
NAKFI was committed to an evolving model. The mandate to evolve, evaluate, and change allowed the program to adapt to shifting conditions and needs. Gathering evidence through evaluation informed decision making and tracked results. Each year was an opportunity to create a conference and seed grant program targeted to the needs and interests of the participants while maintaining the key features that made NAKFI a transformational experience.
Fifteen years of experience and feedback have culminated in impressive results—not only in terms of generating solutions to problems but also garnering follow-on funding, positively affecting careers, engaging the public, and creating a robust model that can be adapted and applied by others. The model itself, and the future achievements of those who have been part of NAKFI, will be the Futures Initiative’s most powerful and lasting legacy. The key lessons gleaned from the NAKFI experiment presented here are grounded in both theory and program evaluation data and have been demonstrated in practice. They reflect the hallmarks of the model and have supported its ability to be an idea incubator, conversation starter, career changer, and creator of cascading impact.
It is difficult to capture a complete picture of NAKFI’s multi-faceted results and significance. NAKFI’s $14.6 million investment in seed grants to conference participants has resulted in more than $158 million in follow-on funding, 205 publications, and 6 patents. NAKFI funding has also supported the work of 94 graduate students (master’s and PhD) and 42 postdoctoral fellows. These results will continue to accrue even as the program itself comes to an end. Beyond quantifiable outcomes are the lived experiences of 2,000 NAKFI alumni and volunteers who have been influenced by the program without receiving grant funding. These individuals have been stimulated to explore new approaches to their research and will continue to make discoveries that would not have been possible without the insights gained through working with colleagues whose work was far removed from
their own. Generating these cascading effects, some of which are unknown and even unknowable, was part of the NAKFI vision.
The NAKFI Challenge was launched in 2017 to invest in projects that will carry forward NAKFI’s work beyond its 15 years as an activity of the National Academies. Open only to NAKFI alumni who participated in the program’s annual interdisciplinary conferences, the call for proposals generated 78 applications. The three winning proposals, each supported by a $500,000 grant, will continue the work envisioned in the original goals of the Futures Initiative.
This publication is also intended to ensure NAKFI’s legacy and impact. It presents the NAKFI story, shares key lessons, and illustrates the model in the words, stories, and voices of those who experienced it. Examples and next steps provide support for anyone who wishes to apply the NAKFI experience to topics and questions of their own.